A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Damages for thalidomide children, 1968
On this day in 1968, the High Court in the UK presided over a settlement to 62 children born with deformities caused by the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide had been first marketed in 1957 in West Germany as a sedative and was later sold over the counter as a cure for morning sickness in pregnant women. Within months there was a huge increase in the number of babies born with missing and deformed limbs, deformed eyes, bowels, and hearts. Around 40% of these children died. The story repeated itself in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and other countries where it had been claimed that it “can be given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without adverse effect on mother or child.” It was this claim for “complete safety” that would lead to a claim against The Distillers Company, who marketed the drug in Britain. The drug was never licensed for use in the USA, largely because one woman at the FDA, Frances Oldham Kelsey, refused to grant a licence without evidence of safety trials. In the UK the trial and compensation award largely hinged on whether Distillers had a duty of care to unborn children. English common law was silent on the issue. It was essentially down to the distinction between “fault” and “responsibility” – Distillers might not have knowingly done what they did but should they have taken responsibility. The out-of-court award negotiated on the steps of the High Court was made thanks in part to a campaign by The Sunday Times, but Distillers’ largesse came with the understanding that all allegations of negligence be withdrawn. Eventually, partly goaded by a share price suffering from negative publicity and a campaign against it in the USA, Distillers substantially increased their payment. Thalidomide is still in use today, as a cancer growth blocker.
Side Effects (2013, dir: Steven Soderbergh)
One of the fascinating things about watching Side Effects is trying to work out what sort of a film it is. It kicks off with a depressed Rooney Mara getting put on a series of SSRIs, happy pills, after a suicide attempt, by her doctor (Jude Law), who eventually gets her on to a new wonder drug, Ablixa. She goes home to her husband, just out of prison for insider trading, who is taken aback by the fact that she wants rampant sex with him, all of a sudden. The fact that the husband is played by Channing Tatum being an obvious sign that she really was depressed, because what woman wouldn’t normally want to … etc etc.
But then things take a turn and the side effects of Ablixa start to exert themselves spectacularly. Mara winds up in prison for a crime that might have been caused by the pills she’s on. Somewhere round here the film starts to switch focus, from the patient to the doctor, who starts digging further into the case, uncovering as he goes a toxic Big Pharma advocate in the shape of Catherine Zeta-Jones (who seems to have decided that poisonous is what she’s best at as an actress). We’ve been diverted slyly into a whodunit, with Law as the not-entirely-righteous searcher for truth in a murky world controlled by mega corporations who spend vast budgets convincing the gullible they need what’s on offer. The slide into something much more recognisably 1940s continues with two further twists which won’t do anything for the promotion of women but do allow both Mara and Zeta-Jones to really let rip as actors, Mara in particular.
It’s true that Side Effects has its faults – Law’s transformation from passive doctor to active investigator never quite stacks up. But as I said the real joy here is watching Soderbergh making the film change track as if it were a train running across a mammoth set of points. As for Scott Z Burns’s script, it deliberately invokes the 1940s femme fatale in an attempt to say something salient about the 21st century sense of entitlement – First World Problems, in other words.
- A twisty dark thriller
- Another great Rooney Mara performance
- The associated spoof website for Ablixa (now sadly defunct)
- Thomas Newman’s jangly mood-setting score
Side Effects – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014