The oft-discussed but scarcely dramatized subject of premature babies receives sensitive treatment in “This Little Life.” First-time director Sarah Gavron, who has previously worked in docus and shorts, shows a sure hand in this properly small-scaled treatment of Rosemary Kay’s semi-autobiographical script, which won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award and is based on her book “Between Two Eternities.” Sensitive without being sentimental or mawkish, this intimate and emotionally charged British film could ride supportive reviews to limited theatrical dates in Europe and North America, but its primary future rests on the tube.
The son of Sadie and Richie Macgregor (Kate Ashfield and David Morrissey) is born in the fifth month of her pregnancy. The size of an adult’s palm, he has to be put on steroids to help his lungs function, but while the hospital’s chief physician in the neonatal wing (Peter Mullan) gives the baby only a 25% chance of making it, he’s a man who makes patients feel they’re in the best possible hands.
But once little Luke gets through his first precarious days and nights, the doctor and mother decide he’s a “fighter” with a will to live. Settling into the hospital herself for the long haul, Sadie begins projecting images of her son as a healthy 7-year-old and begins a private dialogue with him, giving her an opening to feel she can begin to know him. “This Little Life” is a selective account of a protracted, anxiety-ridden waiting period; not allowed to even hold her child for many weeks while he is restricted to a ventilator, Sadie can do virtually nothing to actually help her baby. Yet at the same time, there is really nothing else in life she can do but remain as close as possible to Luke, watch him, talk to him and imagine that her feelings and encouragement and love will somehow help make him stronger.
As the weeks go on and Luke slowly grows Sadie becomes more confident she’ll one day take her son home; Richie feels the same, preparing the nursery for his arrival. At one point, Sadie bonds with an Indian woman whose child is not doing as well as hers. And after more than two months, Sadie practically feels like a member of the hospital staff, having gained access to the security code and moving about freely through locked doors.
But when fate steps in to play a nasty trick, momentous decisions are demanded of Sadie and Richie; story’s emotional triumph lies in the way it reveals the mother, due to the intimacy she’s been able to establish with her tiny sprig, as much better prepared to deal with potential loss than is her husband, whose attitudes are more absolutist but less grounded in direct emotional experience of his son.
The film’s precision and very British sense of restraint prevent it from slipping into the overt heart-tugging mode one would expect from Hollywood treatment of such a subject. Kay, knowing all too well of what she writes, has astutely chosen the moments to dramatize, and Gavron’s presentation of them is quiet yet tenacious.
Working in what, in the most general way, can be called the Ken Loach school, a feeling accentuated by Mullan’s presence, the director nonetheless does not go in for the long, blank silences and representations of societal and institutional heedlessness that sometimes mark the work of Loach and other ’60s-bred filmmakers. Handling a difficult subject that presents risks of soap opera on one side and boredom on the other, Gavron walks an incisive narrow line between them.
Intelligent approach is further reflected in Ashfield’s carefully judged performance in the critical central role. Sadie is justified in fretting and being preoccupied all the time, but this is tempered by her need and eventual ability to move past simple emotion to communication, understanding and eventual acceptance of whatever might happen; it’s a mature interpretation of a rapid maturation process.
Nicely shot in DigiBeta, pic looks sharp, with hospital setting exuding a lived-in but well-maintained look.