DVD Review: THE ADOPTED

Mélanie Laurent's The Adopted runs to ninety minutes and change without ever really letting the viewer inside its characters' heads, with the actress famous for Inglourious Basterds both starring and making her debut behind the camera. Sadly, The Adopted is a low-key melodrama, not a mystery - a story of people struggling with their sense of identity, feelings of isolation and co-dependency. The Adopted is technically pretty sound, Laurent and DP Arnaud Potier demonstrating a reasonable eye for a glossy, coffee-table composition. But it suffers from a combination of standard romantic tropes and horribly misjudged narrative turns, along with a bizarre sense of pacing and dialogue that never really allows the cast to open up. The intent is there, with some great scenes that hint at what the film could have been, but the execution leaves it as facile, disposable and faintly irritating as a table piled with glossy magazines in a waiting room somewhere.

Laurent plays Lisa, one of two sisters - Marine (Marie Denarnaud) was adopted into the family. The two women have been devoted to each other since they were very young, each now taking care of Lisa's little boy, along with their cynically good-humoured mother (Clémentine Célarié). But their relationship comes under strain when Marine falls in love, after a meet-cute with Alex (Denis Menochét), a hangdog stranger who wanders into the bookshop where Marine works. What began as something deeply simpatico starts to turn sour, even poisonous, as Lisa feels Marine is abandoning her while Marine wonders if Lisa is more of a ball and chain than a source of support. But just as things look like they might be on the mend, tragedy strikes, and Lisa and her family have to re-examine whether the choices they made that brought them to this point were really the wisest they could have been.

All of which probably seems straight-forward enough. Yet while The Adopted isn't a bad film, exactly, there's a maddening sense that none of its different parts mesh the way they ought to. It's partly the mechanical stuff, like the way too many of the attempts at light romantic quirk come off as fairly half-hearted - Alex takes shelter from the rain the first time he wanders into the shop, for example, but when there's no shower to provide an excuse he soaks himself with a hose from the builders' scaffold overhead. It doesn't sit well with Laurent's attempts at genteel direction and Potier's soft, muted colour palette, far more 'Will this do?' than effortless comic mischief, and the mismatch bleeds over into everything else. For every moment of dialogue that sparkles ('What does he do?' 'He's a critic.' 'He criticises you?') there's scores more that grate - Lisa's initial wounded protests Marine has left her behind are a trial to listen to, and not in a good way.

The Adopted never seems to take enough time to flesh its characters out with anything more than a twinkle in their eye and a feeling of Gallic joie de vivre, and then it expects these cursory details to do the heavy lifting for a whole raft of painful moments. It almost works. All the principals are talented, consummate professionals, and some of these scenes reach the kind of heartfelt, deep-rooted pathos they're digging for. Audrey Lamy as the clerk at Marine's bookstore is the kind of supporting character who screams throwaway, zany comic relief - but she gets one brief moment with Laurent where she turns from a clown into someone deeply wounded and very, very human, at which point the film suddenly sings. But far too many of the key plot beats simply haven't had enough buildup to work and without it, the script won't let them function. Lisa and Marine's relationship should be heartbreaking, but it keeps veering into something uncomfortably close to Bette Davis meets The Room.

Without a real sense of how Lisa and Marine grew up together, for all Laurent and Denardaud's efforts too much of their emotional dynamic comes across as bitching for the sake of it. Again, sometimes their characterisation works - when Lisa has to break bad news to her son, or Marine realises she can't live without Alex, these moments strike the right kind of note. But when Lisa can't handle coping with life's hardships and bringing up her boy, when she blows up at her friends there's an edge to Laurent's outbursts that seems patently false, even hollow. When Marine's caught up in the flush of young love with Alex - sex and silliness day in, day out, ignoring her sister's mounting frustration - we never get the impression this is really putting anything in jeopardy. It's soft-focus rom-com simpering with an angry shrew on the other end of the phone. The blockbuster Korean weepie Always is infinitely more manufactured, but its big moments hit far harder. Not so much because the film yanks on the heartstrings, but because even in such a contrived universe the writers have done the legwork to make the cast feel like actual people.

The Adopted shows Mélanie Laurent knows her way around a camera, but only in a fairly basic sense; she can pick a cast as talented as she is, but she doesn't seem to know how to best utilise them, and she can help pen some weighty, quietly emotive cinematic moments but can't work them into a consistent, coherent narrative. The climax in particular comes off as laughable where it should leave you speechless. One thread tries to be sweetly fantastical, with Lisa's son attempting to adapt to circumstances in his own way, but where it's not aping the broad strokes of cookie-cutter children's TV it just ends up vaguely creepy. The other thread tries to do something similar with Lisa and Marine finally resolving things as best they can, but it's so enigmatic and simultaneously hopelessly overblown it doesn't stand a chance of connecting. A disappointment, then. The Adopted tries its best to say something meaningful, but it doesn't feel as if its director has quite worked out how.

THE DISC:

Studio Canal's UK DVD release of The Adopted, available to buy now, gives the film a bare-bones but decent release that's worth looking into if you do want to check it out for yourself. The disc goes straight from the opening logos into a simple, static menu that looks a little cheap, but is clean and easy to navigate. The film has been divided into eight chapter stops (though note that one of the images here might constitute a sizeable spoiler!).

AUDIO:

The basic stereo 2.0 track is fine (Dolby 5.1 is also included). For the most part, neither the score nor the dialogue track do anything that's going to test anyone's speakers. The music is soft, reflective stuff, much like the film aims to be, and everyone seems to speak clearly. The exceptions are some later, more intense scenes where the shouting seems to strain whatever mics recorded it, with the yelling edged with large amounts of static, though it's still perfectly audible. English subtitles are not burnt-in, but they don't seem to be removable, should you be fluent in French. Nonetheless, they're clear, legible, well-written and free from all but very minor errors.

VIDEO:

The picture is pretty good, as DVDs go - soft and somewhat indistinct compared to high definition but with a fair amount of detail and no standout moments of banding or blocking. Laurent and Potier use a lot of switching focus and intentionally blurring the background, which seems to help the picture come off as better than it otherwise might. There's a slight amount of grain, but again, this seems to be more of an artistic choice.

EXTRAS:

The only extra included is the trailer, two minutes which just reinforce how unfulfilling the film itself is. This also (predictably) gives away the big twist, which may not bother everyone, but the PR leaves it out - so presumably the studio hope some people go into The Adopted blind?

There's a great deal of promise in The Adopted, with Mélanie Laurent showing she's more than just a great actress. But her début as a director doesn't hold together; it lacks the glue, the connective tissue that would give us more than a shorthand impression of how its characters depend on, care for or fear losing each other. A talented cast can't make unremarkable romantic or melodramatic clichés into truly memorable cinema by themselves, and Laurent doesn't seem to completely understand just yet how to be the guiding hand that gets them all the way there. If you really want to see The Adopted, Studio Canal's UK DVD is a decent bare-bones release that makes for pleasant viewing, but the film itself is very difficult to really recommend.
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