The Mother (2003)


(director: Roger Michell; screenwriter: Hanif Kureishi; cinematographer: Alwin H. Kuchler; editor: Nicolas Gaster; music: Jeremy Sams; cast: Anne Reid (May), Daniel Craig (Darren), Peter Vaughan (Toots), Anna Wilson-Jones (Helen), Cathryn Bradshaw (Paula), Steven Mackintosh (Bobby), Oliver Ford Davies (Bruce); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Kevin Loader; Sony Pictures Classic; 2003-UK)
“Anne Reid gives a special performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Roger Michell (”Changing Lanes”) shifts gears from his feel-good comedy/romance Notting Hill to helm this provocative feel-bad kitchen-sink drama. Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) pens the screenplay to this puzzling dysfunctional family drama that is more probing than the shocker I expected, especially considering the plot revolves around a recent widow in her late sixties having a passionate affair with a married man half her age. What’s more, he’s also her daughter’s lover. “The Mother” questions what is love just as did Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and before that Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but updates the theme to fit contemporary times. In this bleak romance, the forbidden lovers are too calculating to be thought of as mere victims but are more like ghouls trying to come back to life from the dead.

May (Anne Reid) and Toots (Peter Vaughan) are a loveless elderly couple, who manage to stay married because they are used to each other and don’t have enough spunk to upset the applecart. They travel by train from their suburban North England home to London on an invitation to visit their two adult children, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), and their three grandchildren. Toots is fatigued by the journey and unexpectedly has a fatal heart attack. May is frightened to be alone in her suburban home, and tells this to her always on-the-run son. But he can’t pay attention to his mother’s needs because he is distracted by his two bratty children, his chilly trophy wife Helen (Anna Wilson-Jones), an important work project, the house renovation and his own selfish nature. But May convinces the reluctant Bobby to drive her back to London where she can be reborn in the whirlwind of the noisy city, as she’s afraid if she remains at home she will have to go to a nursing home or just give up and die. Her relationships are noticeably strained with both children. The younger wealthy yuppie son, with surprising financial problems due to overextended business interests, doesn’t directly tell her how much he despises her but the icy feelings get through in unguarded contemptuous looks. Her shrill single-mother creative writing teacher daughter openly complains how coldly she was treated as a child. Though May knows this, it still doesn’t deter her from staying in a spare room in Bobby’s house and occasionally staying over in Paula’s flat to baby-sit.

Darren (Daniel Craig) is a charming but unstable schoolboy chum of Bobby’s in his late 30’s. He’s a penniless unhappily married man with an autistic child he loves very much, who has been hired by Bobby to build a conservatory in the luxury townhouse. May soon observes Darren screwing her neurotic daughter on the floor of her flat, and feels attracted to the rugged handyman. Paula’s life is so at a loss, that she believes her only hope for happiness is to steal the hunky Darren away from his wife. She asks her mother to sniff out if Darren is ready to make that move. The dowdy May while conversing with the robust builder over wine, surprisingly finds him easy to talk to and daringly kisses him while they are taking an afternoon walk. When he doesn’t resist, she apologetically asks him to come up to the spare room for sex.

The good sex with the stud is a liberating experience for May after a lifetime of imprisonment with her incompatible and domineering hubby, who in the later years she nursed as if he were a child. Getting banged puts a glow on May’s face, makes her change to wearing clothes that are more appealing and her talent for drawing is renewed. She sketches Darren and her in the buff, and in compromising sexual positions. The drawings are discovered by Paula, who feels betrayed again by her mother. The ditsy Paula feels her mother never encouraged her and always made her feel like she was worthless, which is why she believes she’s now in therapy and her life’s a mess. The mother overstays her welcome in the London visit, whereas both children crudely treat her as a burden.

The rebellious Darren who doesn’t give a damn about social conventions, also cannot escape from his unhappiness though he tries to find happiness by taking any kind of pill, drinking like a fish and sleeping with any woman. He’s trapped just like May and her self-absorbed children in their self-made misery. May has brought the desperation of her dysfunctional family to a new crisis point, whereas everyone is suffering but no one knows how to stop it. But suicide is not in the cards for the persevering May, who walks away from her London experience prepared to risk living again (she can’t plunge a butcher knife into her heart when confronted by Paula and instead assuages her guilt by settling for a punch in the face by Paula).

The cast performances are uniformly superb, handling this unconventional family drama material without sentimentality or compromise. Noted stage actress Anne Reid gives a special performance of having a late-life consciousness awakening and an improbable romance that she made believable against all odds. The Reid character is hard to sympathize with because she was such a failure as a mother and remains so harsh and unsparing despite being so vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in knowing her better and learning what made the housewife lead such a fearful and repressive life. It’s rare that a film has so much inflammatory material about loneliness, the family, love and old age without flattering itself to think it has all the answers. There was one magnificent scene that shows how the filmmaker dared us to feel for a mother who had no feelings for her children. Paula takes mom to her adult creative writing workshop to introduce her to a lonely senior citizen, Bruce (Oliver Ford Davies), craving companionship, who appears to be just like May’s late hubby which is the reason she tries to keep him at bay. When Paula asks her mother to join in a class writing exercise she’s surprised that May contributes a hard-edged confessional piece, read out loud by her in a quivering voice, about walking away from her crying babies because she didn’t like them. There are many other surprises that work and some overwrought melodramatics that are clearly detract-ions (Darren turning suddenly from a sensitive rogue to a whining abuser). But it is hard to deny that the fireworks presented didn’t have something intelligent to say about women in their need for creative expression, liberation and facing old age with dignity.