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Review: 'Call Jane' is the story of abortion in the pre-Roe era

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Elizabeth Banks plays a woman seeking an abortion in 1968 in “Call Jane.” Photo: Wilson Webb/Roadside Attractions

“Call Jane” holds an audience’s attention for two whole hours, and yet it doesn’t try to make you nervous. It deals in material that has built-in drama, and yet doesn’t go for the drama. Usually, that’s a recipe for failure, but somehow this film — percolating at a constant, mild level of threat — is both interesting and restful.

Give it credit for timing. When it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, Roe v. Wade was still on the books. But now the movie arrives in theaters with Roe having been overturned, so “Call Jane” is timely.

It’s the story of a married housewife and mother named Joy, living in the suburbs in 1968, who becomes pregnant. Only this time, the pregnancy causes heart trouble. She has at least a 50% chance of ending up dead if the pregnancy goes to term; whereas, if she gets an abortion, the damage will reverse itself.

Elizabeth Banks, who plays the woman, has a streak of fierceness even when acting weak or intimidated, and that comes in handy here. There’s more strength to this woman than she even knows, and the real drama of “Call Jane” consists of her discovering it.

Elizabeth Banks (left) co-stars with Sigourney Weaver, who plays an activist committed to women’s health. Photo: Wilson Webb/Roadside Attractions

What we expect, early in the film, is the feature-length story of a woman struggling to find someone, anyone, to terminate her pregnancy before the pregnancy terminates her. She tries legal means first, appealing to a hospital committee of old men for whom the mother’s health means next to nothing. (Their own health doesn’t seem to mean much to them, either. They’re all pushing 70 and smoking.)

As it turns out, the abortion search makes up a small part of “Call Jane,” because she is able to find help, through a clandestine women’s organization called Jane. Fortunately for Joy, she can afford the illegal procedure, which cost $600, a fortune in 1968.

This sets the pattern for “Call Jane.” It puts viewers in a position to almost worry about the protagonist and then solves the problem, but always in a way that gets us focused on something else. In this case, the something else is Jane herself, with her leader, a veteran activist played by Sigourney Weaver, and her doctor (Cory Michael Smith), a young, brash man with no bedside manner.

Written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi (two of the creators of the medical drama series “The Resident”) and directed by Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay for the Cate Blanchett movie “Carol,” “Call Jane” finds its way on its own terms. Instead of presenting itself as a political horror story from the unenlightened past, it’s a period piece that acknowledges and respects what people were really like 50 years ago. Joy is a suburban housewife of the era, but she’s nobody’s fool, and she’s surrounded by women who are much like her.

“Call Jane” is also a character study about a woman coming into her own, finding purpose in social and political commitment. This aspect isn’t pushed. Nobody makes a grand speech about how she once felt one way, but now she finally realizes — none of that kind of amateurish writing happens here. Nagy and Banks simply give us the privilege of watching someone slowly grow at a real, measured pace.

But Joy doesn’t change completely. “Call Jane” doesn’t depict a radical transformation, just a deepening. And Banks makes it worth watching.

M“Call Jane”: Drama. Starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Phyllis Nagy. (R. 121 mins.) In theaters Friday, Oct. 28.