Director: Tamara Jenkins
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter
Watch Private Life online in the UK: Netflix UK
It’s been over a decade since Tamara Jenkins directed The Savages, a brilliantly prickly film about familial responsibility and care. Now, she brings us another intelligently awkward drama, Private Life, and what a treat it is to have her back behind the camera.
Jenkins is an astute observer of human interactions, and a masterful executioner when it comes to putting those interactions on screen without any artifice. She teams up here with two of the best character actors around: Paul Giamatti, who has been impressing for multiple seasons in Showtime’s Billions, and Kathryn Hahn, who stole several seasons of Transparent away from the rest of the cast. They shine, both individually and together, as Richard and Rachel, a couple who are trying to have a baby.
We first meet them in the bedroom, not having sex, but using a syringe to inject Rachel as part of their IVF treatment. It’s a decidedly unromantic moment, one that sets the tone for a marital drama that’s as much about the complex disappointments of real life as it is the hopeful love that drives wanting to start a family. They’re a couple who have enjoyed success in their careers – she’s a writer, he’s a theatre producer – but still live in a rent-controlled apartment in not the nicest neighbourhood. After a long time diving into the difficult processes and programmes that might help them achieve the one dream Rachel still has, they’ve gotten to the point where to admit defeat and give up is unthinkable – they’re in over their heads and the obsession is all-encompassing.
What makes Private Life so effective, though, is that there’s still room for laughter in this melancholic situation. “We’re doing everything we can short of kidnapping,” quips Giamatti, and both he and Hahn are veterans at mining pain for humour. They bat dialogue back and forth with a chemistry that’s convincingly positive and negative, able to chuckle and comfort each other as well as deliver scathing insults. Jenkins’ barbed script is brilliantly composed to balance both tenderness and mini-tirades; you’ll feel amused, sad and conflicted all at once, as our sympathies shift between everyone on screen.
That’s partly thanks to the introduction of Kayli Carter as Sadie, Richard’s niece, who shacks up with the pair – and, with her visible respect and affection for both, it’s not hard to see the direction that the story takes. Especially when the husband and wife decide that a donor egg from another woman might be the best option. But every step in any direction raises all manner of emotional and moral questions, from feelings of being usurped to the ethics of websites that encourage preying on strangers’ bodies, not to mention the narcissism of youth and wider family judgement. Add Sadie’s parents into the mix, with their easy, fertile life and you have a moving ensemble piece that rings with specific honesty (Jenkins underwent fertility treatment herself), but has enough of sharp edge to skewer privilege and selfishness when it raises its head. All the while, the clock ticks down on Rachel and Richard’s window of opportunity, pushing them into darker, sadder, funnier exchanges; this is raw, smart and frank filmmaking from a director we hopefully won’t have to wait long to hear from again.
Private Life is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.