Decoding Annie Parker – women helping women. (Film review)

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There are many reasons why films exist, and just because it isn’t likely to be a brilliant work of art, doesn’t mean a film doesn’t have a role to play in it’s ability to connect people to each other and to important subject matter. Decoding Annie Parker has a great cast, an impossibly interesting true story at its heart and a strong message about the importance of females stepping out of a male-created system in order to fight for something they need that is not considered of great importance within that system. That is not to say the work of Mary-Claire King wasn’t supported by the system – her education and credentials, not to mention accolades prove that wrong – but it is more a question of the journey to the success. When women fight for something they need, especially when that battle will take many years, they will be let down by the systems they work hard to maintain for others. For example, Schools operate according to the belief there is a stay at home mother, hospitals relate to families as if they have primary carers who act as a stepping stone between professional care and a persons rehabilitation, scientific research requires the countless hours of work of unrecognised individuals willing to do the work no one will ever hear about or care about, and so on. All these systems are usually upheld by women, mostly because they always have been. And yet it is a painful fact of life, that a woman who might then need to lean on these systems, will find herself abandoned by them.

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A startling example of this occurred in two films at the Sydney Film festival earlier this year, when Catherine Breillat’s film Abuse of Weakness, was shown around the same time as The Possibilities Are Endless, the documentary film showing the recovery of musician Edwyn Collins after having a cerebral haemorrhage. Both films were about artists suffering the same illness within a short period of time, except for one startling difference. Edwyn Collins was married, and was able to lean on his wife through his very painful difficult rehabilitation process. Catherine Breillat was single, with grown busy children, and in the process of having to tend her own rehabilitation, was taken advantage of by a famous con-man preying on celebrities in times of vulnerability, who embezzled all her money and left her floundering in debt. What I will never forget is the pleading eyes of Grace Maxwell as she asked Edwyn Collins when he might be done doing his own thing so that she can stop supporting it and tend her own life, and the image of Breillat’s children attacking her for being so stupid as to fall for a con-man. This is the story of women’s lives, and the sooner women wake up and start to help each other by side stepping these systems, the better.

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Decoding Annie Parker is the true story of two very remarkable women who side step the systems. They only meet, very briefly once, but share a common drive on a project impassioned through different motivation. Mary-Claire King is known for three major accomplishments: identifying breast cancer genes; demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical; and applying genomic sequencing to identify victims of human rights abuses. In this film, she is portrayed by Helen Hunt, and the film focusses on the decades it took her and her brilliant team to discover the hereditary link between a certain type of breast cancer that kills so many women around the world every year. Annie Parker, portrayed by Samantha Morton in a frickin’ fantastic performance, is a woman who saw her mother die of breast cancer, her aunt, her sister and then contracted the disease herself and fought hard, performing her own research, to overcome her illness and contribute to the discovery of the hereditary gene. The plotting mostly follows Annie’s journey, which is one of its problems, because the King story is such an important one, and the Annie path leaves the film open to “terminal illness schmaltz” which is what lets the film down, despite important stories and powerhouse performances. Its written by director Steven Bernstein, with Adam Bernstein and Michael Moss all of whom are TV and music video dudes, so the story and editing combine to TV-mini series the death out of the film and strip it of its power. The narrative is also desperately missing the female voice, although the guys do a reasonable job keeping their own version of what such-and-such ‘really’ means out of it, they can’t help sentimentalizing story to the point of making it anemic. It’s the only problem with this film, but unfortunately it’s such a big one, the otherwise important film made about important women doing important things will just fall into the shit-film-with-a-heart-of-gold category.

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So in a way, this film becomes a victim of the very problem it seeks to expose – that is, it is a film made in an unsympathetic system, by film makers, who don’t properly understand it. Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton’s outstanding performances and the genuinely good heart of Steven Bernstein have been granted awards on the indie circuit which should be the true indicator of what this film could be if it took a few more risks than it does, but unfortunately it’s made now and it can’t be unmade. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great story about an important subject that is treated with a certain sort of dignity, but it’s been white washed of all creative strength as if treating the film as an artistic project will detract from how seriously the film makers feel about the subject. This is why the female voice was so essential – a woman would have had the balls (pun intended) and the permission to say things in a certain way the men have no language for. It’s still a lovely little film, with great performances that won’t make women sick to the stomach, which places it miles ahead of almost every other film made this year, but it could so easily have been something so much better, which isn’t the worst thing you can say about a film.

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