Review: An Underground 1960s Abortion Ring in “Call Jane” | Culture & Leisure
In Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane,” Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is a 1960s housewife married to a defense attorney (Chris Messina) with a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and a baby on the way. A heart condition, however, threatens her life during childbirth. The only treatment, her doctor told her, was “not to be pregnant.”
When they, acting on the doctor’s advice, appeal to the hospital board for permission to discontinue therapy, this critical moment in Joy’s life abruptly passes. The board members, all male, discuss it briefly without recognizing Joy, across the table. “No respect for his mother?” she asks. Their votes sound the answer. “No no.” “Nope.”
“Call Jane,” which hits theaters Friday, is set over 50 years ago, but it could hardly be more current. Following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, abortion Republican Senate candidate Dr Mehmet Oz – recently described as between “a woman, her doctor and local political leaders” – is once again a hotly debated issue in the upcoming election.
Nagy, the screenwriter of Todd Haynes’ radiant ’50s drama “Carol,” once again illustrates how the past can illuminate the present. “Call Jane”, made before the end of Roe v. Wade but as her future grew increasingly precarious, dramatizes the Jane Collective, a network of Chicago women activists who, in the years before abortion was legalized, clandestinely helped other women obtain safe abortions .
“Call Jane” is just one of the abortion rights films that coincidentally debuted this year. Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” piercing, on a young woman in France in 1963, remains one of the standouts of 2022. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ HBO documentary “The Janes” was a captivating reminder of the Jane Collective, with colorful reflections from the women who helped lead it.
“Call Jane,” the brightest of the bunch, lacks the vivid detail of “The Janes” or the captivating visual intimacy of Diwan’s film. But all three films carry an urgency of the moment and a deep sense of empathy for the adversities faced by women whose choice has been taken away from them. “Call Jane” stands out as a moving portrayal of the birth of an unlikely abortion rights activist.
Banks, still good but especially strong here, plays a woman who looks more like the 50s than the 60s. But she’s slowly waking up to the changing times. In the opening scene, she walks through an elegant hotel lobby with lavish music — a moment that would fit perfectly into “Carol” — only to be hit by the raucous sound of women protesting outside. “You can feel a shifting current,” she told her husband.
Their family life is traditional, loving and – aside from a Velvet Underground record – conservative. Centering the story around a character as simple as Joy is in itself a reminder of the wide range of people who might one day begrudgingly seek abortions. Joy’s options, initially, are terrible. “There is always madness,” the doctor told him. A woman suggests: “Just fall down a flight of stairs.
It’s a paper ad at a bus stop that brings Joy to Jane. After a hesitant phone call, she is brought to their offices blindfolded. But “Call Jane” does not play on the secrecy aspect of the group’s activities. Nagy instead remains focused on awakening Joy to a larger world of female sisterhood that is more outspoken about sex and its repercussions. Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) is the leader of the group and a natural hippie for Joy. She calls Joy “Jackie O”. Shortly after Joy’s procedure, Virginia entices Joy to volunteer with the collective. At first, Joy isn’t entirely convinced. A young woman who comes to Jane has unprotected sex with a married man, Joy. is appalled to learn. But Virginie lays down the law: “We help women. We don’t ask questions.”
“Call Jane” notably relaxes within the collective, a ragtag group of women that includes a Black Power activist (Wunmi Mosaku) and a nun who answers phone calls (Aida Turturro). There may have been more scope here for the film, which spends a lot of time with the lesser doctor in the bunch (Cory Michael Smith), who performs the procedures. But that, too, is part of Joy’s story, as she becomes more and more deeply involved with Jane. For Joy, it’s more than a cause. For the first time, she realized her own power.
There are probably many more stories that could be told about the Jane Collective, which facilitated around 12,000 abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. But few know how to unravel the threads of repression in a society like Nagy. The conventional approach of “Call Jane” is a statement in itself. This could be anyone’s story.
“Call Jane,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for some language and brief drug use. Duration: 121 minutes. Three out of four stars.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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