In Safe Hands review – lives collide in intelligent adoption drama

In a welcome but heavy-handed tale, a fortysomething woman embarks on a momentous quest to bring a child into her home

While British film-makers such as Ken Loach approach issues rooted in a personal situation, French social realists are often drawn towards the overall functioning of an institution. Maybe it is France’s statist traditions that are responsible. Joining the likes of The Class, 10th District Court, Courted and even 120 Beats Per Minute is Jeanne Herry’s In Safe Hands, which examines the adoption system – as its original title Pupille, meaning a ward of the state, makes even clearer.

It’s split between three standpoints: the twentysomething student surrendering her one-day-old son into state care; Alice (Elodie Bouchez), a 41-year-old divorcee desperate for a child of her own; and Jean (Gilles Lellouche) and Karine (Sandrine Kiberlain), an interim carer and welfare officer who are in effect parents of the would-be parents.

Herry’s watchful style – going easy on the handheld in favour of something more composed and elegiac – establishes the momentousness of the transition period between a child being given up and adopted. Added to the discreetly fragmented structure is her liking for dramatising key events in basic bodily terms, like the baby breaking out in hiccups when his mother comes to say farewell.

There’s a radical idea here – all drama is essentially emotions, biology. Unfortunately, it’s developed rather heavy-handedly in later scenes where the boy, now called Théo and displaying an eerie lack of affect under Jean’s care, has his trauma resolved. In fact, In Safe Hands overreaches. Personal lives start mirroring the adoption process with faintly trite exactness; Alice’s meltdown in her work as an in-theatre audio describer immediately follows her first awkward meeting with her prospective son.

Forcing the drama is perhaps a consequence of the dispersed structure. Elsewhere, other things go underplayed, such as Karine’s growing longing for Jean. “Adoption isn’t just the encounter of three people. It’s the encounter of three stories,” one officer tells Alice. “You must process your story – and help the child process theirs.”

In Safe Hands is a little too quick to let its characters successfully process, in its eagerness to proclaim that fostering works. But this intelligently performed film is still a welcome look at a vital and underappreciated duty of state.

Contributor

Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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