'Mother and Child' is one of those melodramas that manage to rise above the usual didactic characters and plot contrivances, typical of the genre. Sensitively written by Rodrigo Garcia (son of the famous novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), it focuses on three separate characters and plot lines, which finally converge, establishing the connection between each one.
The principal characters of the screenplay fit into Screen writing Guru Michael Hague's category of Primary Characters which include Hero, Nemesis, Reflection and Romance. The hero, who is the primary character, has an outer motivation that drives the plot forward. In the case of 'Mother and Child', that would be Karen, smartly played by Annette Bening. Her outer motivation is to find the daughter she gave up for adoption as a 14 year old. Karen is a bit darker and more complex than your usual melodramatic heroine. Due to her bitterness over the loss of her daughter, as well as being forced to take care of a dying mother, Karen has become hyper-critical toward others, especially men. Some internet posters had trouble believing Paco (Jimmy Smits), the co-worker Karen ends up marrying, would tolerate her petulant behavior; and yes, he's a bit of a caricature of the understanding lover--but they do have a few powerful scenes together. One such scene that comes to mind is when Paco leaves the tomatoes tacked up on the wall, and Karen, on one of her 'bad hair days', rips into him most inappropriately. Another good scene underscores another one of Karen's flaws (jealously)--this is when Karen grabs the necklace from her housekeeper's daughter, denying that her (now deceased) mother would have given it to the little girl as a gift.
The nemesis is the character who most stands in the way of the hero in achieving her outer motivation. This is Elizabeth, brilliantly played by Naomi Watts. The Elizabeth character is what enables 'Mother and Child' to rise above the clichés of the typical soaper. Elizabeth stymies Karen from achieving her outer motivation of accomplishing the mother-daughter reunion. What's interesting is that, as it turns out, this is more a matter of fate than Elizabeth's conscious decision (although some of Elizabeth's choices, lead to a tragic conclusion).
Elizabeth is a wonderfully complex character in that we root for and against her at the same time. She's a high-powered, successful lawyer, who goes through life with a heart of steel, utilizing her sexuality to get what she wants. She has no qualms about bedding her boss, nice guy Paul (Samuel Jackson) and then seducing a young next door neighbor who appears to be happily married. Elizabeth's venomous demeanor can be directed at both men and women. There's that scene where she places her underwear in her next door neighbor's drawer (I felt a bit cheated that the director chose not allow us to see the wife's reaction). And there's also that amazingly powerful scene where Elizabeth uses the 'C' word, chastising the doctor who makes the mistake of assuming that she wants an abortion. Once Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she becomes more human. She gives of herself by befriending a blind girl but once again her willfulness does her in—she insists on seeing her baby when it's born, instead of opting for a C-section or anesthesia. Without giving the plot away, her decision results in tragic consequences.
Hague also uses the term "Reflection" as another category involving the primary characters. In reflection, we have a character that supports the hero's outer motivation. Here Lucy (Kerry Washington) ultimately fulfills Karen's motivation by adopting Elizabeth's daughter. Before that happens, there's some rather intense interplay between Lucy and the birth mother, Ray (Shareeka Epps), who ends up changing her mind about giving up her newborn after her tough as nails mother influences her in that direction.
Finally, the romance character is the sexual or romantic object of hero's outer motivation. I understand that Mr. Garica (who also directed), needed to keep the story moving but the relationship between Karen and her romantic partner, Paco, seemed a bit rushed. You can practically blink your eyes, and suddenly Karen and Paul are married. Samuel Jackson's character, Paul, as Elizabeth's short-term partner, is interesting as he comes off as completely passive, due to having lost his wife a few years earlier. This passivity is illustrated when Elizabeth gets on top of him when they make love and she orders him to passively enjoy himself, as she basically is 'in charge'. Lucy's husband, who we see briefly in the first half of the film, has one of the best moments when he surprises us by walking out on his shattered wife.
There are other good characters in 'Mother and Child', too numerous to mention here. Despite the rather predictable 'happy ending' and the over the top coincidence that Karen and Lucy have been in close proximity to one another for quite some time, 'Mother and Child' is an impressive achievement. What I like about this film is that there are so many twists and turns that are constantly popping up. The characters might be a little over the top, but the emotions they display, are truly heartfelt and true to life.