Unusual hybrid of docu and drama works best in the latter form, which depicts scenes from a diary kept by a New England midwife between 1785 and 1812. Nonfiction segs stop the action to explain the significance of the material, which is packed with details about post-colonial America, and this disjunction may nix the pic’s access to theatrical circuits, which the producers hope to land. “A Midwife’s Tale” should have a healthy pubcasting life, however; PBS has slated the docudrama for its “American Experience” series.
It may not be brilliantly assembled, but the ground this “Tale” covers is so fascinating, it hardly matters. Pic alternates between handsomely mounted enactments of journal entries left behind by nurse-practitioner Martha Ballard, active in New England at the turn of the 18th century, and discussions with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who researched the diary and wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning book about it.
The bipolar move is a mistake, since it takes away from the book’s inherent sense of drama, and because Ulrich has a less-than-pleasant voice, full of sibilant noises and tedious hesitation. Her work is certainly solid — she soldiered forth when male historians dismissed the diary’s everyday contents as insignificant, but the jarring effect here is that of reading an austere historical novel and a slightly giddy People magazine article at the same time.
No complaints about stalwart Kaiulani Lee, who plays Ballard in the realistic re-creations of Yankee life. Despite her Hawaiian name, Lee is a direct descendant of one of the families on display, and she brings compelling gravity to the sometimes harsh, sometimes mundane events, which touch on still-hot issues of race, class, religion and gender — right down to entrenched resistance to women in the arenas of medicine and politics.
As “Midwife” makes clear, the real-life Martha delivered a thousand babies and settled numerous local disputes, but did anyone thank her for it? On the contrary, her own family (including the proverbial drunken husband) undermined her good work, and her health, at almost every turn.