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Not Without My Daughter

Year: 1991
Production Co: Pathé
Studio: MGM
Director: Bran Gilbert
Writer: Betty Mahmoody/William Hoffer/David W Rintels
Cast: Sally Field, Alfred Molina

The only reason I watched this movie was because I gathered it was a fairly big deal in the 80s when it came out. My mother read the book and as far as I remembered, watched the movie as well, and because I knew the basic premise I expected a weighty, searing and very political drama. It is all that, but in the hands of compulsive crier and gasper Sally Field it's a little bit of a melodramatic potboiler too.

If you're part of Generation X like I am you're probably obliquely aware of the story, where a well-to-do American wife of a doctor, Betty (Field), agrees to take the family to his homeland (Iran) with their daughter Mahtob.

Betty doesn't want to go, fearing a place that's exactly what they find in the Ayatollah Khomeini era of widespread political fear, a lack of personal safety and a social climate extremely harmful to women and girls. But it's been years since Moody (Alfred Molina) has seen his family so she lets him talk her into it. As long as it's only for the two weeks they planned on, Betty figures she can stick it out.

But Moody's family are the worst caricature of the way Hollywood portrayed Iranians in the 80s, where the men are all imposing and threatening, shouting at each other in a strange language and apparently constantly angry about Betty or something she's doing, the women angry too – and not shy about berating Betty or the way she raises her child – but also skittish in their fealty to the whims of their men.

Every discussion seems to consist of his whole family yelling at Moody for something or other, and as it soon becomes apparent, it's mostly about his disrespectful wife who doesn't cover her hair properly, has her own opinions and wants to return home to the demonic west.

For no real reason that's fully explained (maybe a large aspect of the book was that you never really know somebody or how quickly they can change), her previously loving and understanding husband turns into a monster. He cancels their return trip to America without her knowing, telling her they're going to live in Iran now, insisting on enrolling their daughter in a Muslim school and making Betty a prisoner, demanding to know where she is and who she's seeing, forbidding her from using the phone and becoming more verbally and physically abusive, all in a country that gives her no rights or recourse.

Betty sets about going behind his back to try and figure out a way out – talking to a woman from a Western embassy, trying to make friends with another expat American wife she thinks might have connections, and eventually enlisting the services of a kindly local man who specialises in sneaking people out. She and her little girl stage a daring escape in the middle of the night, crisscrossing a geographically and socially hostile Middle East in a bid to reach an American embassy.

It's harrowing in parts and in the mid 80s it probably passed for Oscar bait, but just as much of the drama is a little bit overcooked, especially in the hands of emotional time bomb Field. It's also another entertainment industry anachronism in having a white Englishman play an Iranian, something that would be howled down by the blogosphere and social media today.

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