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D: George C. Wolfe / 93m

Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Reg E. Cathey, Courtney B. Vance, Rocky Carroll, Leslie Uggams, Reed Birney, John Douglas Thompson, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Beasley, Peter Gerety, Gabriel Ebert, John Benjamin Hickey, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Byron Jennings

Without the HeLa immortal cell line, it’s unlikely that many solutions to many medical conditions would have been arrived at as quickly as they have. A breakthrough in medical research, the cancer cells taken from then thirty-year-old Henrietta Lacks during the summer of 1951, have meant literally the difference between life and death for people all over the world. In the years since their discovery, it’s estimated that scientists have grown around twenty tons of Henrietta’s cells, and there have been approximately eleven thousand patents registered that involve HeLa cells. But even though Henrietta’s cells have contributed greatly to the advancement of medical research, the method of their attainment has been the cause of much debate about US medical ethics in the 1950’s, and the treatment of patients during that time. Put simply, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken from her by the staff at Johns Hopkins without her permission, or her being aware that it was happening.

Revelations surrounding the source of the HeLa immortal cell line arose during the 1970’s when Henrietta’s family were asked to provide blood samples in order to help researchers replace a batch of contaminated cells. A dinner table conversation in 1975 made the family aware that her cells were still being used. However, Henrietta’s family didn’t pursue the matter, and although Henrietta’s contribution to medical science began to be recognised more and more during the 1990’s, it wasn’t until Rebecca Skloot, a freelance science writer who’d already written two articles about HeLa in 2000 and 2001, approached the family through daughter Deborah Lacks with a view to writing a book about it all.

And so we have the movie version of Skloot’s multi-award-winning non-fiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In gestation since the book’s publication in 2010, the movie arrives courtesy of HBO and Oprah Winfrey (who plays Deborah), and seeks to examine the medical, ethical, moral and human dilemmas surrounding the harvesting of a person’s cells without their consent. And though these issues are raised at various times during the movie, it soon becomes obvious that these aren’t going to be the issues the movie focuses on. Instead, the focus is on Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) herself, and Deborah Lacks, a woman whose personal demons dictate a high level of erratic, and sometimes paranoid, behaviour.

What also becomes obvious is that in adapting Skloot’s book, screenwriters Peter Landesman, Alexander Woo, and director George C. Wolfe, have bitten off quite a bit more than they can chew. As the central character, Skloot deservedly takes centre stage, but we never really get to know too much about her other than that she’s using her own money to fund all her research into learning about Henrietta and what happened both to her, and to her family. Skloot’s motivation for pursuing the story remains unanswered (though the question is asked), and she’s often reduced to being a bystander, an observer on the periphery of everything. But then the script will bring her to the forefront, leaving the viewer to wonder just how important she is to what is happening on screen.

Byrne plays Skloot, at first, as an awkward, nervously grinning, seemingly out-of-her-depth journalist hooked on a great idea for a book but unsure if she can make it work when Henrietta’s family don’t exactly welcome her with open arms. She perseveres though (as does Byrne), but it’s all to too little effect; Skloot remains a cypher throughout, a stable character that everyone else can use as either a sounding board or an emotional punchbag. There are times when Byrne seems to be a little bit behind everyone else, as if she’s always running to catch up, and while her performance is adequate, there’s a feeling that the script has subordinated her character in order to give the movie’s first-billed star more room to impress.

As Deborah Lacks, Winfrey gives an impressive, emotive portrayal that serves as a reminder that when she’s engaged fully with a role, she’s a very fine actress indeed. Ironically though, her performance is so strong, and so compelling, that it dominates the rest of the movie entirely, and upsets the movie’s otherwise sedentary nature whenever Winfrey appears. It’s hard to tell if this has been a deliberate move on the part of Wolfe and his co-screenwriters, or the actress herself. Either way, the movie becomes more intense and more dramatic whenever she’s on screen, and then becomes quieter whenever she isn’t. Only Cathey as Deborah’s older brother Zakariyya matches her for intensity, and that’s largely because Zakariyya has acute anger issues that threaten to flare up at any moment.

There are further problems that centre around the movie’s focus, with too many subplots and minor storylines brought into play only to be left unexplored, and too many supporting characters given only a scene or two to make an impact. Wolfe and co. have attempted to cram in as much information, incident and development as they can but it all proves detrimental in telling a coherent and cohesive story. There’s outrage too, but instead of being directed at the way in which Henrietta was, and has been exploited all these years, it’s all to do with Deborah’s younger sister, Elsie, who was committed to the appallingly named Hospital for the Negro Insane when she was just eleven years old. And while this subplot works better than many others, it’s more about Deborah than it is Henrietta.

All in all, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is less about the unwitting donor of the HeLa immortal cell line than it is about her immediate family, and the journalist who felt compelled to reveal her story to a wider audience. Somewhere during the movie’s production the focus was allowed to shift away from Henrietta, and in letting that happen, the movie manages to do her a massive disservice. Perhaps it’s ironic, but in reducing Henrietta’s involvement in a movie about the most significant thing that ever happened to her, to that of a supporting role, the makers have continued to keep a woman of tremendous influence back in the shadows where she’s already spent too long.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that never manages to work out which story it wants to tell at any given time, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks flits from subplot to minor storyline in an effort to cram in as much as possible, but all to no avail; more of a tribute to the tenacity of Deborah Lacks in wanting to learn more about her mother than a tribute to Henrietta herself, it’s a patchwork piece where the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to a purposeful whole.