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Tamara Jenkins’ smart, painfully funny comedy begins with a bedroom scene: a woman in her knickers, ready and waiting. Her husband leans in and ouch! He injects her with hormones. The joke (and like a lot of the jokes here, it’s brutal) is that in the struggle to get pregnant, this New York couple – Rachel and Richard, terrifically acted by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn – haven’t had sex in months. Both in their 40s, they’re mid-IVF cycle, having fertility treatment for the nth time. “A lot of women have babies at 41,” says Rachel. “I thought I’d be one of them.”
She’s a novelist. Richard used to be a theatre director; now he makes artisanal pickles to sell at farmers’ markets. Taking a belt and braces approach to becoming parents, the couple also apply to adopt. Before a social worker visit, they debate what needs to be hidden out of view in their apartment – the nude portrait with the enormous un-Brazilian-ed bush?
As characters, Rachel and Richard are novel-like realistic and deeply satisfying. Giamatti, doing a warmer, wiser and more attractive version of his usual frustrated hangdog, is particularly riveting. In the more Hollywood version, you’d get Bradley Cooper, too handsome, too dazzling to play a man who makes his living from pickles. It helps that Giamatti and Hahn actually look like the kind of people they’re playing.
This is Jenkins’s first film since The Savages 11 years ago (depressingly, as seems to be the case with many female directors, there have been big gaps between her movies). She wrote the script after undergoing fertility treatment and the detail is brutally accurate, instantly, wincingly recognisable to anyone who’s been there – down to the clinic waiting room, everyone staring sheepishly at the floor with the shame of being a fertility loser.
There are uncomfortable truths, too, about the ethics of a fertility industry sucking desperate people in with the promise of a miracle baby, and the mixed messages women get about when to conceive: wait until you’ve got a career, but hang on, you’re as barren as the colonies in The Handmaid’s Tale by the time you hit 30. What an intelligent, emotionally grown-up film. More of this please.
•Private Life is released on Netflix on 5 October.
Source: The Guardian
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