During Stalin's reign of terror, Evgenia Ginzburg, a literature professor, was sent to 10 years hard labor in a gulag in Siberia. Having lost everything, and no longer wishing to live, she meets the camp doctor and begins to come back to life.
On a snowy winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry rushes his pregnant wife Norah to the hospital, where, with help from her husband and nurse Caroline Gill, she delivers their son Paul. However, Dr. Henry discovers that his wife was carrying twins, and helps her deliver the second child, a baby girl named Phoebe. Shortly after Phoebe's birth, he finds that she has Down Syndrome, and hands her over to Nurse Caroline, explaining that the death of his ill sister nearly destroyed their mother and he doesn't want Norah to go through that. Instead, he instructs Caroline to take Phoebe to a nearby institution for the mentally ill, figuring the child won't live much longer, and tells Norah that Phoebe was a stillborn. However, after visiting the institution and seeing the state of the other patients, Caroline takes the baby home with her, stopping along the way to buy formula and diapers. With help from a truck driver named Al, Caroline begins to raise the baby as her own, while Dr. Henry ... Written by
THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER in the form of a novel by Kim Edwards was a highly successful bestseller and probably was featured in more reading groups than any other novel during its circulation. So what happened when the novel became a made-for-television movie? Perhaps it is the below mediocre screenplay (oops!, teleplay!) by John Pielmeier that consistently galumphs along in an awkward pedestrian fashion removing all sense of credibility to the story. Perhaps it is the cut and paste direction by Mick Jackson that misses the pacing and character delineation. Perhaps it suffers from the cinematography of an uncredited source or the 'liquid tears' musical score by Daniel Licht. For whatever of these (or all of these) reasons, this novel-to-film survives because it does make a good case for educating the public about the capabilities of those born with Down Syndrome. And for that it is worthy of attention.
Dr. David Henry (Dermot Mulroney), a successful orthopedic doctor, is married to the beautiful Norah (Gretchen Mol) and their lives are becoming changed by their pregnancy. On a stormy winter night in Kentucky Norah goes into labor and the Henry's rush to a nearby clinic where David delivers his wife (the doctor is caught in a snowstorm) with the assistance of his old friend, nurse Caroline Gill (Emily Watson). After the delivery of a perfect boy child (Paul) Norah continues to be in labor and (surprisingly...) delivers an unexpected (!) twin girl. David and Caroline immediately recognize that the little girl (Phoebe) is a 'mongoloid' (this is before the use of the term Down Syndrome) and David, having a history of losing a little sister because of a birth defect) decides to send Phoebe to an asylum for the mentally challenged: Caroline is to make the delivery and Norah is told the second twin died at birth.
Caroline follows instructions, sees the conditions of the 'home' where Phoebe is to be deposited, shrinks in horror, and decides to keep the child. Aided by a friendly trucker, Caroline changes her solitary existence and mothers Phoebe, finding a new life in her trucker's Pittsburgh. Norah insists on a formal funeral for Phoebe - a fact that deeply disturbs David's psyche, and the Henry's life goes on with only the one child Paul, leaving submerged pains about the lack of Phoebe's presence. Norah gifts David with a camera ('peoples lives are like a camera, that's where they live - in a room captured by a moment') and David becomes obsessed with photography. Norah grieves, drinks, and loses David's attention, while David traces Phoebe's existence with Caroline - sending money and letters to Pittsburgh. Paul (Tyler Stentiford to Jamie Spilchuk) grows up, discovers his mother's infidelities and is angered about his father's lack of communication and understanding, and decides to fulfill his goal of becoming a musician, and off to Juilliard he goes. Meanwhile Phoebe (Krystal Hope Nausbaum) has matured into a very highly adapted young girl, and the manner in which the broken marriage of the Henrys happens and the healing atmosphere of Phoebe's and Paul's lives coupled with the courage that has supported Caroline Gill's struggle to gain acceptance in the world for those born with Down Syndrome forms the conclusion of the film.
The cast of well-known actors tries hard, but only Emily Watson is able to resurrect a credible character from this squishy script. Jamie Spilchuk gives evidence of a young actor with much promise. Dermot Mulroney and Gretchen find it difficult to mold empathetic characters form the corny lines they are given to deliver. The film is a mess, but the message about acceptance of Down Syndrome children and adults is an important one. Grady Harp
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