Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Steven Mackintosh, Cathryn Bradshaw, Peter Vaughan. (2004, R, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 2, 2004
Sirk and Fassbinder, most famously, tackled the social stigma of a middle-aged woman reigniting her sex life with a younger man, but director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) raise the stakes in The Mother by posing the question: What happens when the young, brawny thing mom is schtupping also happens to be her daughter’s boyfriend? Sixtysomething May (Reid) and her deteriorating husband Toots (Vaughan) leave their house in the suburbs for London to visit their grown children Bobby and Paula; the vacation is cut short when Toots suffers a fatal heart attack. Bobby tries to usher May back home, but she’s not having it – for her, retreat to her home signifies a giving-in to the final stage of her life – a life, she sadly notes, she has never really gotten around to living. Couch-hopping in London between Paula's and Bobby’s places, May instead makes the miraculous discovery that there’s still quite a lot of living to be had. At first, that epiphany is manifest in long walks, trips to the museum, and delight in what it feels like to get lost in a big city. But then enters Darren (Craig), the married, ne’er-do-well boyfriend of Paula who is also doing carpentry work at Bobby’s house. May is reluctant at first to give him a chance – as far as she can tell, he’s brought her flighty, single-mom daughter nothing but grief – but then May warms up to his many charms, as well as his tight tush and workman’s belt. An accidental, tipsy kiss between the two eventually ignites something of an erotic firestorm between the two, with long afternoons spent in every kind of position imaginable, all re-created in May’s squirmingly amateurish sketchbook. (Note to self: If you have to sleep with your daughter’s boyfriend, don’t draw incriminating pictures, and if you have to draw incriminating pictures, for God’s sake don’t leave the sketchbook lying around.) A certain inevitability hangs over The Mother – as if any of this could end well – but if Kureishi’s framework is perhaps predictable, his knotty, complex characters are not. There are constant shifts in both sympathy and loathing for each leg in this romantic triangle, and the actors – in particular Reid and Craig – give fearlessly to roles that might have been twittering. That said, there’s still something discomfiting about the film – and no, not because of the age gap. Instead, it’s Michell’s handling of the material. A vaguely Lifetime Network-feel hangs about the picture, with its lugubrious piano score and prudish lensing of the first crucial sexual encounter from faraway, out of focus, and with – no lie – a fluttering lace curtain flapping in front of the action. C’mon already – if the actors are so willing to expose themselves, physically and emotionally, then one would expect, nay demand, equal candor from the director. Perhaps aware the story borders on the mawkish, Michell overcompensates with an often-suffocating arthouse ethos, with excessively stagy framing, a glacial pace, and the overall hands-off reserve of a museum piece. It makes for an odd paradox – the actors eagerly plumbing the blood & guts of the thing, and Michell trailing behind them with the cinematic equivalent of a sanitary wipe, restoring order and artfulness to what might have been powerfully visceral.