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Call Jane, review: A frightening look at a society without legal abortion

The i 11/11/2022 Joanna Whitehead
Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane (Photo: Roadside Attractions) © Provided by The i Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

It is 1968, riots rage in Chicago, and suburban housewife Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is walking through a luxury hotel, taking the first steps towards a position of radical feminist consciousness. This is the opening shot of Call Jane, Phyllis Nagy’s thoughtful, engaging film based on a real underground network of abortion services – the Jane Collective – for women who needed them.

Banks, by turns steely and gentle, is the cosseted wife of a lawyer (Chris Messina, kind but stuck in his ways) and mother to a teenage girl, Charlotte (Grace Edwards). She’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a second child, but is told she has only a 50 per cent chance of surviving childbirth.

Nagy – screenwriter for another cerebral, female-led period film, Todd Haynes’s Carol – turns her hand deftly to directing her first feature here, with a solid, impassioned ode to the pioneers of providing abortions to women in need.

After Joy is turned down by an all-male board of doctors for a termination, she is told things like: “Just fall down a staircase – it worked for me.” She turns to a “Call Jane” flyer to find access to an illegal abortion. It’s there she meets Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), a black activist who encourages this privileged white woman to get more involved in helping others, and Virginia, the leader of the organisation (Sigourney Weaver, pragmatic and tough).

The period detail is lovingly rendered but rather on the nose at times – with Joy digging through her daughter’s Jimi Hendrix and Velvet Underground records, or saying things like: “You can feel a shifting current…” to offer shorthand for the times-they-are-a-changin’ setting of the late 60s.

Still, the intentions of Call Jane are good. In light of the recent overturning of the Roe v. Wade ruling by the US Supreme Court, to refer to the film as timely would be an understatement. And while it plunges us back into the staid and sexist values of the era, the ideas are still familiar in some quarters: that men know best what should be done with our bodies, or that foetuses are more important than the mothers who carry them.

This chilling lack of regard for women is sadly as contemporary as it comes, making Call Jane both a frightening look at a society without legal abortion and a heartening reminder that determined women always find a way.

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