The Midwife teems with great Catherines

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      Starring Catherine Deneuve. In French, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      Catherine Deneuve gives a towering performance as Béatrice, a dying woman who looks back on her life and attempts to fix a couple of her very few regrets.

      Her principal sorrow, aside from the brain tumour she can no longer ignore, is having abandoned Claire, the young daughter of her former lover, some 30 years before she returns to Paris to look for them both—presumably because she needs help in what’s coming. Since Béatrice has lost touch with all the people from her past and doesn’t know Google from Gogol, she hasn’t heard that the dad died soon after she left. Or that Claire—played by the equally formidable Catherine Frot—is now a 50-something single mom with a son in medical school and a stern passion for her own work, as a midwife.

      In France, and in the original title, she’s referred to as a sage femme, or wise woman—which also sums up her orderly, almost monastic life. She works in a standard hospital and we get to see several of what really look like live births, but her profession is under threat from more streamlined medical practices. And now her domestic world is upended by the long-lost stepmother, who manages to push in all fronts. None of this tug of war keeps Béatrice from smoking, drinking, eating like a queen, and gambling large bags of cash in dubious surroundings.

      There is some narrative predictability to the central dynamic, which sends an untamable dervish whirling into an almost saintly figure who needs shaking up. But writer-director Martin Provost doesn’t make his central characters leap too far from where they start. And he brings in engaging side players, such as a long-haul truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) who shares Claire’s love of gardening, and her son (Quentin Dolmaire), whose resemblance to his late grandfather shakes Béatrice to her core.

      Because the meaty, two-hour tale is so essentially naturalistic, it takes time to notice how elegantly framed, shot, and edited it is. In fact, Provost’s reach for some more exaggerated stylistic effects near the end provides its only missteps. In any case, with two Catherines this great, the labour was bound to go well.