“Call Jane” is a good example of how a few questionable choices can muddle an otherwise-powerful story, with the recent HBO documentary version of these events, “The Janes,” outshining this fictionalized dramatic account. The portrait of an underground abortion network pre-Roe v. Wade is obviously timely, but its slightly askew focus blunts the overall impact.
Part of that has to do with making Elizabeth Banks’ Joy, a privileged housewife living in Chicago in 1968, the film’s centerpiece, introducing her as being somewhat oblivious to the tumult of the times. With a teenage daughter, she and her lawyer husband (Chris Messina) are expecting a later-in-life baby, before a health scare reveals a heart condition that makes giving birth especially dangerous for her.
Joy initially applies to the hospital board for permission to terminate the pregnancy, only to have her petition dismissively denied by the all-male panel. That leads her to a clandestine abortion network, and eventually her own growing involvement in the service and indeed the movement, as guided by the older, wiser and infinitely more cynical Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, classing up the joint, as usual).
Directed by Phyllis Nagy (whose previous directing credit was the HBO movie “Mrs. Harris”) from a script by Haley Shore and Roshan Sethi, “Call Jane” actually peaks in terms of its resonance with the protracted scene in which Joy receives her abortion, guided calmly – if not all that gently – by the eccentric man (“Gotham’s” Cory Michael Smith) performing it. The sequence slowly and painfully captures the mix of fear and discomfort Joy feels, after her blindfolded trip to the location and the dimly lit room where it happens.
If “Call Jane’s” ultimate goal is to present the dangers of “back-alley” abortions in the context of the Roe reversal, mission accomplished, and the subsequent stories of those seeking the service underscore the different motivations involved. The movie also highlights racial and class disparities, passionately articulated by an activist played by Wunmi Mosaku, when scraping together $600 decided who was taken in and who sent away.
As constructed, though, the movie gets weighted down by what feels like minutia, from Joy’s husband expressing growing irritation about her unexplained whereabouts to the widowed next-door neighbor (Kate Mara, seriously under-employed) who Joy resists taking into her confidence.
The writers clearly intended to personalize the abortion conversation through their Everywoman protagonist, and Banks ably fills that role. Still, turning this into one woman’s story shrinks the narrative at least as much as it universalizes it, especially in the context of other movies and TV shows that have tackled this issue.
“Call Jane” still feels like a film that deserves to be seen, and its release so close to the US midterm election – adding to the conversation about abortion rights, even if it’s unlikely many will rush to see it – hardly feels accidental.
The movie itself, though, doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. Given that, for a more illuminating glimpse of life before Roe – what it was like then, and what it could become again – watching the documentary provides a more compelling picture.
“Call Jane” premieres October 28 in US theaters. It’s rated R.