TV review: The Dark Matter of Love takes a scientific but hopeful look at emotional bonds

BBC4

Sarah McCarthy's adoption documentary, The Dark Matter of Love, told the story of just one family, but had a lot to say about how rich countries relate to poorer countries, what one baby born into poverty means for the rest of the world and how our earliest experiences shape us. It was a scientific but intrinsically hopeful look at the emotional bonds within a family. Or, if you prefer, it was "Supernanny: Extreme".

Eleven-year-old girl Masha and five-year-old twin boys Vadim and Marcel were about to leave their Russian orphanages to move in with a loving family in an idyllic Wisconsin suburb. Claudio and Cheryl Diaz met when they both worked at Disneyworld in Florida (Claudio was Goofy, Cheryl was Tinkerbell) and their experiences there had obviously informed their vision of family life. They already had a 14-year-old daughter called Cami but dreamed of a bigger, Disneyfied family of four. Adoption sounded like the happy ending everyone deserves, but as psychologist Dr Robert Marvin gently pointed out, in fact, it's just the beginning.

"We're a big hugging family! We love our hugs!" announced Claudio shortly after they picked up Masha from the orphanage. He had both the moustache and the temperament of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons and Masha initially regarded him and her very American new family with a cold suspicion that, as Brits, we might surmise is only natural.

In fact, as subsequent interviews with Masha made clear, her difficulty in expressing emotions is a typical symptom of neglect shown by children who were raised in orphanages. Masha's early friendship with an orphanage worker called Ludmilla was reason for hope, however. Dr Marvin said she may have had enough experience of an affectionate bond to eventually, slowly build relationships with her new family.

Too many such documentary series ask us to buy into huge personal transformations that apparently take place over the course of the commercial break. The Dark Matter of Love made clear that the footage of the Diaz family was gathered over months and years, and somehow this made the tiniest triumphs all the more moving.

Masha's blossoming from a sullen introvert into an all-American teen (via her performance in a school musical, of course) was heartwarming to behold, but it didn't come without a cost. Some of the film's most heartbreaking scenes involved Cami passively watching as Masha attempted to usurp her place in their father's affections.

Vadim and Marcel's difficult early years manifested in the opposite way: they threw the kind of volcanic temper tantrums that no mere "naughty step" could pacify. I found their five-year-old Russian boy insults pretty hilarious ("Smell my shitty socks, Mr Idiot!"), but I imagine they're not so amusing if, like Cheryl and Claudio, you're on the receiving end on a daily basis. As the Diazes discovered, real family life is lot more fraught than a Disney movie, but it's also a lot more interesting.

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