Kate’s not wanted any more,
Gonna throw her out the door.
US / 89 minutes / color with some bw / Victoria Principal, Jeff Myrow–David Gottlieb, Polone, Hearst Dir: Colin Bucksey Pr: Kimberly Myers Scr: David Chaskin Story: Jeff Myrow, David N. Gottlieb, David Chaskin Cine: Anthony B. Richmond Cast: Marcy Walker, Cotter Smith, Olivia d’Abo, Elissabeth Moss, Jim Norton, Judy Parfitt, Roxann Biggs (i.e., Roxann Dawson), Mary Larkin, Jeff Nowinski, Pierrette Grace, Nicole Prochnik, Jake Jacobs, Matt Corey, Stephanie Shroyer, Beth Bjork.
For most of its running time this rather neat made-for-television movie presents itself as a psychological thriller, an interesting riff on the likes of The HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992), but in the later stages it fairly abruptly morphs into something quite different.
It’s the end of term at the Roman Catholic St. Helena Akademy in Stockholm, and young Anna Bergman (Grace) has fixed up a job as an au pair in distant California. On her final night at the school she gets a note from her room-mate, Kirsten Grossbaum (d’Abo), asking to meet in the science lab for a surprise. The surprise is that Kirsten beats her over the head with a pestle, then organizes a gas explosion so that Anna is burnt to unrecognizability. Using Anna’s passport and a knack for disguise, Kirsten then flies out to take Anna’s place as au pair to high-powered executive Kate Cowan (Walker) and her struggling-professional-illustrator husband Nick (Smith), looking after their nearly-eight-year-old daughter Christina “Chrissy” (Moss).
The real Anna Bergman (Pierrette Grace).
Kirsten (Olivia d’Abo) looks back at the mayhem she’s caused.
“Anna” has a fearsome first day, the breaking of the washing machine being the highlight. Kate manages, however, to persuade her to stay on—and, in an indication that we weren’t mistaken about “Anna” having a sinister purpose, we see that the young woman always knew Kate would do exactly this.
Kate (Marcy Walker) does her best to be welcoming.
In imitation of the girl she supplanted, the real Anna, the au pair is representing herself as toothily goofy, her eyes wobbling around behind bottle-bottom spectacles. It won’t be for too long that d’Abo has to maintain the preternaturally difficult task of looking plain; as she inveigles her way into the hearts of Nick and more importantly Chrissy, her confidence increasing, “Anna” looks progressively lovelier. Luckily, too, she’s managed to bring with her from Sweden an incredible number of changes of clothing in just two smallish suitcases!
Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, Kirsten’s father, Stefan Grossbaum (Norton), is raising hell first with St. Helena Akademy’s Reverend Mother (Parfitt), then with the morgue attendant (Jacobs), and finally with the manager (Larkin) of the au pair agency. The woman whose charred remains were found in the ashes of the science lab was not, he insists, his daughter Kirsten. He does everything he can to track down the room-mate Anna, whom he assumes at this stage to be an innocent bystander.
Stefan (Jim Norton) examines the corpse and declares it isn’t Kirsten’s.
For “Anna” and the Cowans, things seem to be going swimmingly. Chrissy has bonded really well with her new companion. Nick, whose career has been struggling a tad, discovers fresh inspiration in a portfolio “Anna” shows him of her own color drawings. She cooks like a dream, keeps the place clean as a pin, and by now looks gorgeous.
“Anna” (Olivia d’Abo) and Chrissy (Elissabeth Moss) become best buds.
The only person who’s beginning to feel there’s something wrong with the scenario is Kate, who senses she’s being ousted as mother, home-maker and perhaps even, she tells her close friend and colleague Liz (Biggs/Dawson), Nick’s lover. Her neurotic behavior, especially after she discovers that Nick, through “Anna,” has hired a new gardener, Bob McDowell (Nowinski), without consultation, has an effect exactly the opposite of her hopes: it starts driving her husband and daughter away.
Nick (Cotter Smith) looks smug, his default expression.
By this stage we’re tending to agree with them: what the movie manages very cleverly to do is, as perhaps an “Anna” would in real life, start lodging our sympathies very firmly with her, even though we know at the same time she’s a murderer and schemer. (This was exactly the same effect achieved, at least for me, by Rebecca De Mornay’s character in The HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, although in that movie, to be fair, there was a lot more ambiguity about the ethical status of Annabella Sciorra’s character.)
Stefan (Jim Norton) realizes how close it is to Chrissy’s 8th birthday.
In desperation, the father of Kirsten/”Anna” has come to the States, and contacts Kate. As he explains the true situation to Kate over the telephone, and as it’s brought home to us that all Kate’s screeching paranoia was in fact not just justified but more than justified, we find the movie is something other than what we’d up until now believed. The fact that Chrissy is within days of her eighth birthday suddenly assumes major importance, as does the red crystal pendant that “Anna” habitually wears . . .
Bob the gardener . . . or is he something more?
We could certainly complain that Midnight’s Child is guilty of being derivative of not just one but two of the widespread tropes of popular commercial cinema at the time, but there’s originality in the combining of the two. Also, since Midnight’s Child was first screened barely three months after the release of The HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, it’s legitimate to ask how much it logistically could have been derivative.
Where it truly stands out, though, is in one of its narrative techniques. Frequently during the telling we’re given brief—on occasion extremely brief—little precognitive flashes, in black-and-white, of events that are to come. Sometimes these are trivial, more often they’re significant; with a pleasing sense of disconcertment, we have no way of knowing in advance which are which. We don’t even know if they refer to real future events or dreamed ones.
One of Kate’s visions of “Anna” (Olivia d’Abo) in bed with Nick (Cotter Smith).
D’Abo as the femme fatale (and never was that term more truly applied) and Moss as the gappy-toothed moppet are both quite splendid, in their very different ways, as is Norton (although his Swedish accent periodically slips a bit) as the father driven to desperation by the knowledge that his daughter is evil and the difficulty of persuading anyone else to believe this.
“Anna” (Olivia d’Abo) and Chrissy (Elissabeth Moss) hide in the grass — it’s all a great game, supposedly.
“Anna” (Olivia d’Abo) begins to show her true colors.
Walker turns in a very serviceable performance as the mother, while Smith adequately fills the requisite space on the screen: he’s moderately convincing as a father, less so as an illustrator. The most unconvincing sequence in the movie comes when, Nick having finally struck a fertile seam of inspiration, Kate tries to drag him away from the easel for a convivial evening; by the time their children are coming-on-eight, the spouses of artists know better than to do this unless the house is burning down . . . and possibly not even then.
Talking of art, there are some really quite good examples of it on view. The drawings in “Anna’s” book/portfolio were done by Petr Sis (credited as Peter Sis) and the larger piece, supposedly done by Nick under “Anna’s” inspiration (and which I’d have bet money was by Todd Lockwood!), was by John Eaves.
A page from “Anna’s” portfolio, done by Petr Sis.
Nick’s poster, done by Jim Eaves.
On Amazon.com: Midnight’s Child [DVD]