Lifetime movies are seldom accused of being overly ambitious, but such is the case with “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” an adaptation of Kim Edwards’ bestselling novel that easily could have been splashed over a couple of nights. Crunched into one, this quarter-century-spanning tale at times feels like the teaser for a longer, more satisfying miniseries, though the final portion still resonates with emotion and the potential life-changing toll of a single impulsive act.
Dr. David Henry (Dermot Mulroney) delivers his wife of a son during a storm in 1964, but after she faints from exhaustion, there’s an unexpected surprise: a baby girl, too, though one he quickly recognizes as a “mongoloid,” in his eyes giving the infant little chance of survival.
Hoping to spare his wife, Norah (Gretchen Mol), the pain of losing a child as his mother did, David hands the girl to his nurse, Caroline (Emily Watson), with instructions to leave the newborn at a group home several miles away. Caroline can’t bring herself to do so and instead raises the baby as her own.
For Caroline, who soon marries, it’s a difficult life but a fulfilling one, fighting ignorance regarding Down syndrome as she seeks to have her daughter treated equally. As for David and Norah, his decision gnaws at him and wreaks havoc on every relationship in his family.Condensing Edwards’ book into cinematic chapters, director Mick Jackson (who knows something about tear-jerking, having done “Tuesdays With Morrie”) and writer John Pielmeier use David’s passion for photography to create little montages that help advance the action, but there’s still a fitful tone as the narrative leaps forward in multiyear increments as well as back and forth between the two families.
That approach also somewhat blunts the performances, leaving insufficient time to flesh out Mulroney’s tortured doctor and Watson’s caring nurse, who bursts forth with a third-act admission that comes completely out of left field.
That said, the movie takes some unexpected twists building toward a strong and touching conclusion, and the period spanned delivers some of the same nostalgic kick as AMC’s “Mad Men” — here detailing the barbaric view of Down syndrome a little over a generation ago. (In a wonderfully natural performance, 18-year-old Krystal Hope Nausbaum plays the abandoned Phoebe from age 13 to 22.)
Despite results that are a bit underdeveloped, then, credit Lifetime with a movie that may not be entirely memorable but that is, in the final analysis, a keeper.