Cover Story

A Lie's Haunting Aftermath

Gretchen Mol in
Gretchen Mol in "The Memory Keeper's Daughter." (Lifetime)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Kathy Blumenstock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

When Gretchen Mol read the 2006 bestseller "The Memory Keeper's Daughter," she was sure it would be made into a movie.

"I got hooked after the first chapter," said Mol, who stars with Dermot Mulroney in the Lifetime adaptation of Kim Edwards's novel.

Like the book, the movie spans 25 years in the lives of Norah and David Henry, beginning the night Norah gives birth to twins. David, a doctor, is thrilled by his firstborn son but takes swift action upon seeing the Down syndrome girl. Recalling the brief, unhappy life of his own Down syndrome sister, David instructs a nurse at the hospital to institutionalize the child. He tells his wife the baby died, dismissing her pleas to see and hold her daughter.

"Emotionally, he feels he is protecting Norah," said executive producer Howard Braunstein, referring to David's decision. "When I read the book, I thought, 'What a jerk he is to do this.' But he considers it the right thing to do, based on his own experience, so you understand his point of view. And it sets up the theme of keeping secrets and how that destroys your life."

Nurse Caroline Gill, played by Emily Watson, impulsively decides to raise the child as her own. She moves to another city and builds a life for herself and the girl, Phoebe.

Norah Henry tries to move on with her life, spending time with her son, Paul -- but her restlessness, rooted in a sense of loss, leads to drinking, extramarital affairs and troubled dreams of a daughter she believes is dead.

Her husband begins taking hundreds of photos with a camera called the Memory Keeper, a gift from Norah. His pictures lead to a second career as a photographer -- and when he locates Phoebe, he shoots and hides hundreds of photos of her as she grows up.

Mol described her character as a woman stuck in time, aware that "there is more to the story, whether it is her conscience or a mother's intuition," she said. "There is a sense that, not only is she trying to get over the death of her child, but some other element, which is the big lie, that is breaking down and chipping away at their marriage."

While Norah's husband was emotionally stunted by his secret, and the nurse found joy with the unwanted baby, Braunstein said, "Norah goes from this naive, traditional housewife of the 1960s to finally breaking free of a burden, getting a career, finding the truth and happiness -- so it's a pretty powerful span."

In casting the secretive David, Braunstein said producers wanted an actor who could "be spare in his choices."

"What struck me is that Dermot does not need to say much, because you can see the pain in his face," Braunstein said.

Viewers familar with the book will note that many of its details are compressed, and a key resolution is different for Norah.

"It is important for Norah to go for something, because she has spent so much of her life in a passive way," Mol said. "In making that choice, it completes her journey."

The movie, which was filmed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, includes actors with Down syndrome -- including a baby seen in a close-up shortly after Norah gives birth and young actors who portray the growing Phoebe and her boyfriend.

Braunstein said he consulted with various Down syndrome groups to find the actors. He called the film "an enormously positive message for Down children."

"The movie starts with the ignorance of the doctor, who calls them Mongoloids, and then you see Caroline, who is so determined for Phoebe to have a good life," Braunstein said.

Mol described Krystal Hope Nausbaum, who portrays Phoebe from age 13 to 22, as "such a force."

"All I had to do was look at her face and the way she beamed back at me; she just had this part completely," Mol said.

"When you look at that Down baby, you wonder how [society] could have pushed this whole group of people off the world. These people [with Down syndrome] were the magic spot in this film."



9 p.m.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company