In Safe Hands is a journey through the French adoption system, following baby Theo from birth to the day he moves in with his new mother.
Jeanne Herry’s film sits at the exact right place on the sentimentality scale between clinical and saccharine. It’s all about the process and as such is deeply researched, every step carefully documented. Though there is a score, it’s minimal and unobtrusive. Most of all, the movie is an ode to the various professionals at all the different stages of adoption, and it is shaped by, and remains in quiet awe of their professionalism.
And it’s that awe that gives In Safe Hands such a strong emotional heartbeat. The care that the adoption agency employees put into their work makes it more than a job – it’s a calling. They must become a difficult mix of steely and empathetic, as so much of their day is spent disappointing desperate prospective parents. But as Lydie (Olivia Côte) explains to the furious aspiring father who sits in front of her, their first goal is to be an advocate for the children, not the adults. It does not mean she isn’t sympathetic to their anguish, but if she could be swayed by crying and shouting, she wouldn’t be any good at her job.
Still, the plight of adoptive parents remains a huge part of the movie. Via flashback, we follow Alice (Élodie Bouchez) through the eight years it takes her to get from initial application to eventual adoption; through divorce, changes in employment, crushing blow after crushing blow. When she is eventually given the good news that her application has been successful, she almost doesn’t believe it. After the best part of a decade jumping through hoops, it doesn’t seem conceivable to her that the journey has ended.In Safe Hands is also admirable for being completely non-judgmental. Much of the first act is concerned with Clara (Leïla Muse), the young woman who gives up her baby and sets the wheels in motion. As the psychologist Mathilde (Clotilde Mollet) patiently guides her through her options, she never once looks upon her with disdain. Clara is never asked to justify her decision. Everyone involved is wise enough to know what an agonising choice she has made, and trust that it is the right one for her.
Jean (Gilles Lellouche) is the foster parent who looks after Theo until a permanent home can be found. At the start of the movie, after one of his charges comes terrifyingly close to killing another, he is about ready to give up and start doing something else. But when his old friend Karine (Sandrine Kiberlain) tells him about Theo, he is pulled right back in again. He’s a natural. Although In Safe Hands is dealing with serious issues, it can also be very funny. Many of those laughs come from Lellouche, who gives one of the most charming performances of his whole career. His characterisation is so rich – curmudgeonly but kind, fond of a joke but always competent and capable – that he could have carried a whole film on his own.
The fact that he is just one part of this compassionate, comprehensive movie is a tribute to how special In Safe Hands is.
In Safe Hands is out on DVD and Digital Download now.