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Call Jane review – good-natured but all-too-timely dramedy about pre-Roe America

Phyllis Nagy's study of The Janes, female solidarity, and abortion in '60s Chicago is warmer and less harrowing than you might expect

It’s one thing to make a timely film, but quite another to make one in the hope that it will never be truly timely again. This is the spirit in which we find Call Jane, produced in 2021 before premiering at 2022’s Sundance Festival and then thrust into the most frightening of spotlights by the hideous actions of the US Supreme Court. Tackling the secretive and dangerous world of illegal abortions in a pre-Roe v. Wade America, it's a period piece that has only become more painfully relevant in the past few months as Republican legislatures have rolled back women’s rights as far as they can. It’s a very heavy context, one which both empowers but also weighs down this ultimately good-natured story of sisterhood.

Not adapting any one particular story, but based on true events nonetheless, the Jane of the title is not a single person, rather a codename for a group of women in ‘60s Chicago who organise safe but still illegal abortions. One of their clients is Joy (Elizabeth Banks), our heroine here who, with a near-terminal diagnosis related to a pregnancy-based heart condition, has to turn to the Janes after her hospital’s all-male board essentially sentence her to death by refusing to grant authority for an emergency termination.

Unlike, say, Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Happening, Joy’s abortion is not the whole story – in fact, her procedure is safely and uncomplicatedly done with inside 45 minutes. The bulk of the rest of the film is more concerned with Joy’s growing radicalisation and politicisation, recruited into the Janes by group head Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) initially as a driver, but soon graduating to organisation and even assisting the group’s doctor Dean (Cory Michael Smith) in performing procedures that she’s teaching herself to do on the sly.

It’s a propulsive, often even fun, plot (it’s certainly never as brutal as its more harrowing abortion-story contemporaries), though it can at times feel too slight – a race relations-within-feminism subplot is so thinly sketched that it should have been cut entirely, feeling too much like an afterthought for comfort. The script, from Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, also starts getting messy towards the end, suddenly relying on too many contrivances and rather rushing the finale. The journey there, though, is nicely handled with a lot of strong character work that the solid-across-the-board cast really make the most of.

Banks’s Joy makes for a compellingly flawed and multifaceted lead, gaining empathy and toughness in equal measure as her arc progresses, while it’s really nice to see Weaver in a role that isn’t a simple cameo. Chris Messina also does good work as Joy’s husband Will, who takes Joy for granted in a very ‘60s Man way, but also genuinely loves her and appreciates her intelligence – this isn’t the typical tragically shitty marriage you see in most modern movies set in this time period, and Joy’s world feels much more believably lived-in as a result. Directing a feature for the first time, Phyllis Nagy (who also wrote the magisterial script for Todd Haynes’s Carol back in 2015) immerses us in this world with warm colours and great set design, though there is an overreliance on peppy musical montages.

Though an epilogue scene celebrating the Supreme Court enacting Roe v. Wade hits a very curdled note (a problem for which Call Jane cannot be blamed but does still suffer for, which feels pretty fitting in its own way), this is a surprisingly light-hearted history lesson about the endless struggle for rights and equalities. As Virginia notes, there were fights before and there are fights to come, but it’s still important to celebrate whatever victories one can win. It’s a stirring idea that encompasses an obvious but still affecting awards-season dramedy, one that seems sure to be a staple of secondary school history classrooms for years to come.

Call Jane is released in UK cinemas on 4 November.

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