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TV Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ Starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, on HBO

Variety logo Variety 4/18/2017 Maureen Ryan
© Provided by Variety

The immensely readable book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is ultimately the story of three extraordinary women: The title character, a Baltimore woman who died young, and whose cancer cells changed the course of scientific history; her daughter Deborah, who persevered against incredible odds to find out more about her mother; and Rebecca Skloot, the author of a nonfiction bestseller about both, who knit scientific history and family saga together with an inspired elegance not seen since Watson and Crick came up with the double helix.

The HBO movie about this trio makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.) 

Deborah is almost the exclusive focus of the HBO movie, which  is true to Skloot’s sensitive depiction of her. Deborah, according to Skloot, could be challenging to deal with and yet boisterous good company. Along with other members of the Lacks family, she was dealt a grindingly hard hand by fate, and the mystery and misinformation surrounding the death of Henrietta only made the family’s many difficulties harder to bear. 

Winfrey gives heartbreaking urgency to Deborah’s desire to know more about her mother, and also to her and Skloot’s efforts to research the short and tragic life of Deborah’s sister, Elsie, who was disabled, and suffered greatly at the hands of the medical “experts” of mid-century Maryland. Deborah is deeply damaged by all the family pain and loss, but she is also unstoppable. That’s a challenging combination to pull off, but in Winfrey’s hands, the character ends up being inspirational without being insipid.

Deborah is not a predictable or one-dimensional heroine; director George C. Wolfe and Winfrey pay her the respect of making her into a complicated person whose perseverance in the face of her many ailments, obstacles, and anxieties was nothing short of amazing. Her personality resembled her driving: At the wheel of a battered car full of papers and possessions, Deborah often careened through life leaving stunned bystanders in her wake, but she always got to her destination in one piece.

The reasons for Deborah’s anger and need for answers are not hard to understand: Her mother’s tissues were used without the family’s permission (which is standard medical policy even now). As the decades rolled past Henrietta’s 1951 death, the scientists who tested and used medical information from her and other members of the Lacks family didn’t explain what they were doing, or why, with compassion or true respect.

Some trimming of the story is to be expected, but “Henrietta Lacks” could have easily been a longer film or a multi-part miniseries. At various points, it simply needs a bit more room to breathe, in particular when it comes to laying out various family relationships and histories. The 92-minute running time isn’t quite enough to do justice to the fascinating people and knotty ethical and medical issues Skloot outlines in her book.

Wolfe, who penned the script along with Peter Landesman and Alexander Woo, did fairly major surgery to Skloot’s work. The fact that Lacks’ cells stay alive and reliably divide in the lab has allowed scientists to perform thousands of important experiments — in fact, their cultivation and dissemination kick-started the biomedical industry. But all of that information is summarized through a series of news clips and retro moments that unfold over the opening credits.

Not all of that compression is unwelcome, but more fully developed medical voices would have been welcome. In general, the ham-fisted response of most researchers to the Lacks’ desire for information or compensation doesn’t get much screen time, nor does the rocky but ultimately moving progression of the friendship between Deborah and Skloot.

Deborah’s decision to allow Skloot to see her mother’s closely guarded medical records is a major turning point in the book, but it doesn’t register as momentous in the film. That said, Rose Byrne provides an impressive array of reactions as Skloot, even if her character never quite comes alive the way Deborah does.

And yet some sequences of the film are quite affecting, in large part thanks to Winfrey’s galvanizing presence. Though Deborah walks with a cane and displays a rolling gait, she is alert and alive to everything and everyone she encounters, and she often leaves the younger and healthier Skloot in her dust. As Deborah gathers the few remaining shards of her mother’s sacrificial, marginalized story, she glides from angry to vulnerable to brightly energetic, and it’s impressive to see the actress navigate all those mercurial shifts so effortlessly.

The connection between actor and role is profound and deep, and never more so than in a crucial and cathartic scene with her cousin Sonny (an inspired John Beasley). Henrietta, Sonny explains to Skloot later, was chosen by God to be an angel. This film’s most notable accomplishment is that it’s easy to understand why Deborah finds that idea a balm and a comfort.

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