“Just fall down the staircase. It worked for me.” It’s the 1960s and the advice is well-intentioned but for Joy (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience watching Call Jane, it’s enough to make your blood run cold. For her directorial debut, Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy takes us on an emotional journey through a debate that’s just as current now as it was then. Abortion.
Radical change is in the air – the chant of “the whole world is watching” at the start of the film immediately recalls The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and its real events – and it’s the backdrop to the comfortable middle class life enjoyed by Joy and her husband Will (Chris Messina). They already have a teenage daughter and now there’s a baby on the way, except this time the pregnancy is life-threatening and she’s refused a “therapeutic termination” by the all-male board at the hospital. While her husband accepts the decision, Joy stages a personal rebellion and, seeing a flyer encouraging “anxious” women to call Jane, she picks up the phone and, after finding a solution to her own problem, is drawn into helping other women in similar situations.
She gradually becomes a member of the Jane Collective, an underground group providing abortions and presided over by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), a compassionate but practical activist. Joy graduates from comforting patients to learning to perform the procedure and replacing the arrogant young doctor Dean (Cory Michael Smith) who charges $600 a go for his services. It’s a deeply personal arc set against a broader and changing landscape: the film culminates in a celebration five years later, when abortion became legal in the US following the Roe v Wade decision. The recent overturning of the ruling, and the subsequent fall-out, gives Nagy’s sincere but otherwise sombre movie a relevance it could never have anticipated. It also begs much the same question as Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Eliza Hittman’s Sundance winner from 2020. Has anything really changed for the better?
While there’s little that’s surprising about the film, it’s refreshingly unafraid to challenge itself. Having a white, attractive housewife at the centre of the story looks like a cliché and it tackles that head on, with activist Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku) consistently speaking out on behalf of the black clients who simply don’t have the money to pay for a service they so desperately need. It makes for some feisty debates. The scenes which consistently hit home, however, are those depicting the abortion procedure itself – the faces of the women, the clinical way it’s described to them and the cringe making metal instruments themselves. The patients may change, but the procedure doesn’t and each sequence manages to capture its routine, almost automatic, nature and each woman’s deep rooted fear.
Anchored by a clutch of strong performances – Banks and Weaver are excellent, but so are Messina, together with Kate Mara in a smaller role as a widowed friend – Call Jane is a sobering watch, one that raises numerous and, sadly, familiar questions. Yet, with its background of social change, the rallying cry that it sorely needs is noticeable by its absence. Perhaps Nagy is relying on the audience for that.
Drama | Cert: 12A | UK cinemas from 4 November 2022 | Vertigo Releasing | Dir. Phyllis Nagy | Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Mara.