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Movie Review : Romand's Sad, Moving, Funny 'Mixup'

May 21, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Right at the center of Francoise Romand's documentary, "Mixup" (at the Nuart), is a peculiar situation, one in which terror and nightmare balance on top of deadpan humor, both shot through with veins of grief.

Romand chronicles the actual lifelong entanglement of two British families, the Wheelers and the Rylatts, whose babies were accidentally scrambled at a Nottingham maternity home. It's a bizarre imbroglio which one mother suspected immediately, but which was ignored by practically everyone else involved until the girls were 20, each unmistakably resembling the other's "parent."

There are many levels to this story. First, there's the simple nightmare of having the wrong child handed to you at the hospital. We never learn exactly why the mix-up occurred, but more disturbing is the way it was handled.

When Margaret Wheeler was given little Valerie in 1936, she immediately complained that the child looked different: clearly a premature baby, whereas her own had been full-term. The nurse in charge--the real villain of this piece--pooh-poohed Mrs. Wheeler's suggestions and treated her fears as post-natal psychological aberrations, which she should fight to overcome.

This nurse speculated that Mrs. Wheeler had mistaken the dates of her own pregnancy--but, obviously, she followed none of it up. It seems shocking now that this unnamed woman couldn't spare 10 minutes to investigate and thereby possibly spare two families a half-century of uncertainty and agony. It's even more infuriating that she would airily dismiss a mother's fears as mental disturbance--something which, as Mrs. Wheeler's digging became more and more obsessive, the Rylatts came to believe as well.

Immediately, the story develops complex social, moral and psychological currents. The Wheelers are well off; the Rylatts are working-class. The Wheelers are intellectual, and send all their children to college; the Rylatts don't. The Wheelers are a voluble, smiling bunch; the Rylatts somewhat dour and taciturn. Mrs. Wheeler keeps pressing the matter; the Rylatts, while sympathetic, tend to dismiss it absolutely.

Yet, ironically, Peggy Rylatt, Mrs. Wheeler's true daughter, grows up happy and well adjusted, secure in the love of parents who reject the idea she may not be theirs; while Valerie Wheeler, Mrs. Rylatt's true daughter, grows up insecure and wounded, convinced subconsciously that her parents love her less. When Valerie says this at an otherwise warm, loving gathering of the Wheelers and Mrs. Wheeler dissolves into tears, it's a truly heart-rending moment.

As interesting as the story of "Mixup" is the way Romand tells it: a queer, distanced, high-tech style, with carefully composed and balanced frames, symbolic settings and many obviously scripted and staged scenes. There's a pristine, farcical quality about the style, but its very overcomposed rigor ironically suggests the absurdity of a world where havoc can be wreaked by mere chance, where things simply can't be controlled.

Despite its brevity, "Mixup" (Times-rated: Family, naturally) is as unique and interesting a documentary as you're likely to see for quite a while. It has one extremely touching element: the measure of humanity as both the Wheelers and Rylatts gradually adjust to a painful situation. In a weird way, they become one family, bound together in an odd network of happenstance and diverted love. That most of them could weather this storm and accept it with good grace, warm feelings and respect and appreciation for one another is as moving as it is amusing, as funny as it is piteous.

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