Joely RichardsonHugh LaurieRowan AtkinsonJoanna Lumley
Maybe Baby
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Ben Elton
Keywords: comedy
Country: UK
Actor: Joely Richardson, Matthew Macfadyen, Hugh Laurie, Adrian Lester, Yasmin Bannerman, Joanna Lumley, Rachael Stirling, Dave Thompson, Emma Thompson, Stephen Simms, John Brenner, James Purefoy, Richard Leaf, Lidija Zovkic, Tom Hollander, Rowan Atkinson, John Fortune, Dawn French
Format: 104 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 20 January 2011
That was excellent, until the last 15-20 minutes when it becomes merely okay. It's a far more personal piece of work than I've ever seen from Ben Elton and contains writing at a level I didn't know he was capable of. I was impressed.
The obvious thing to talk about, first of all, is how self-reflecting it is. It's about someone who works at the BBC and would like to write a film screenplay, while his wife is going spare at their inability to have a baby. This isn't the kind of material I'm used to from Ben Elton. To be blunt, it's his real life. Elton is a well-known writer, director and producer for the BBC, while he and his wife had indeed been having IVF treatment in the hope of becoming parents. Hugh Laurie was a stand-in director for some scenes of this film when Elton had to go to hospital for the birth. Oh, and the studio making this movie is BBC Films.
However that's only the beginning of it. Not only is Ben Elton 1 (the original) writing about Ben Elton 2 (the fictional one), but after a while the second Elton starts writing about a third. Yes, we have a writer writing about a writer writing about himself, about himself.
Now it would be wrong to get carried away with this. This is not even pretending to be a documentary and it would be a mistake to start reading too much into it. Elton 1 is also the director of his movie, which he adapted from his own novel, Inconceivable. Elton 2 is a TV executive who's merely writing a movie script to be directed by someone else. This isn't a confessional or anything. However what it is is a surprisingly well-written film with a ton of personal insight and some rather impressive subtleties into how even the best marriage can falter under stress. Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson have a great relationship and are both well-meaning and likeable, but even so there are moments when one isn't in tune with the other. You'll have your priorities. You'll have something on your mind. You won't even notice that you've just trampled on the feelings of your spouse in a way that was important to them, but probably also too minor for them ever to mention.
You'll be romantic at different times and in different ways, for instance. There's a whole world of this to explore when Richardson wants to have sex as much as possible, especially in any manner that she's heard might increase the chances of conception.
I'm probably making this film sound a bit grim or dreary, but it's not. There are lots of jokes. It's funny. Elton's observation from life is particularly killing when it comes to the BBC, where he goes to town on management drivel and artistic egos. It's just subtler humour than usual for him, to the extent that occasionally he'll throw in some scatalogical dialogue and it doesn't feel quite right. He's also got a keen eye for the little absurdities, e.g. over-protective mothers in the park. "Don't touch my child. I don't want you touching my child."
There are a ton of famous British faces, obviously, albeit often in cameos. Emma Thompson is a joy, with some epic gibberish. Dawn French is an Australian nurse. Rowan Atkinson is my favourite of them all though. One word: gynaecologist. Most important though are obviously the two leads, with Hugh Laurie being excellent and Joely Richardson being calm but fearless in a demanding role, both in terms of emotion and dignity. What her character goes through here is not something to be undertaken lightly.
One of my favourite things about this movie, in hindsight, is the way it leaves unspoken the thematic parallels. Laurie wants to write a script. Richardson wants to make a baby. These are both processes of creation and in both cases, the parent-to-be is prepared to do some pretty extreme things to make it happen. The more you think about it afterwards, the richer these parallels become... yet the film leaves you to notice that (or not) for yourself. No one ever says "making a film is just like making a baby", because obviously that would be trite and ridiculous, but note for instance the different ways in which Laurie's character will take personally a slight on his professional or personal fertility.
All that's great. We have here a genuinely excellent film, ending in an unforgettable scene that cuts so close to the bone that it hurts. That was powerful. However after that it continues, for those last 15-20 minutes I told you about. Oh, they're okay. They're fine. They give the story its correct ending. However the film's shifted gears to be more plot-based, which just isn't as good as it had been. Oh, and Laurie's beard is a mistake. I see why they did it, but as usual it's not helping to have only half the actor's face visible.
This is a far better film than I'd have guessed. It has subtlety and realism. Note for instance the way in which a key story beat is conveyed through something as tiny as an character saying a line he doesn't mean. We're being expected to watch the actors carefully and use our intelligence. The film's also being honest about the kinds of things that can happen, e.g. suspected meningitis. I'm not going to say it's Ben Elton's best work because I don't believe realism is inherently better than silliness, but it's the most mature writing I've seen from him and impressive in a completely different way to Blackadder.
And on top of that, it's funny!