A Symphony of Unlikely Desire: Roger Michell’s “The Mother”
by Peter Brunette
“The Mother” is a well-directed slice of contemporary life in England that covers some of the same emotional territory of Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies,” but is not quite as powerful or as sharply observed. But though it does occasionally wander into melodrama — and certainly more frequently than did the Leigh film — it is, for the most, solid and absorbing. Made by talented commercial director Roger Michell (“Persuasion,” “Notting Hill,” “The Buddha of Suburbia,” “Changing Lanes”), the film features a relatively unknown sixtysomething British actress named Anne Reid in the title role, and she’s terrific. The no-holds-barred script about a widow suddenly reawakened to her sexuality by a younger man was written by Hanif Kureishi, who collaborated with Michell earlier on the mini-series “The Buddha of Suburbia,” and is best known for his first film, “My Beautiful Laundrette.”
May (Reid) lives a quiet life in rural England with her husband of many years. Her life is boring but placid, until one day she and her husband decide to visit their children, living in London. The son is a money-obsessed yuppie with an attractive wife and a couple of bratty kids. The daughter is neurotic and involved in an unhappy relationship with the economically irresponsible Darren, a workman who is also building an addition to the son’s house. Michell wonderfully captures the small desperations of family life that some hardcore conservatives would like us to believe is all sweetness and light, and he and writer Kureishi are perversely expert at revealing the emotional brutality that can lie hidden under a cheery exterior. The director is also very good at modulating tones and tempos and ably contrasts the noisy pace of the yuppie son’s hectic life with the somber quiet that suddenly descends when May’s husband has a fatal heart attack while they are visiting London.
May’s life seems over. She returns to her quiet home, grief-stricken. Her son says to her, “now, don’t be difficult, mother,” when she resists some little plan he pushes on her. She replies, in one of the many sharply worded dialogue exchanges the script contains, “why not?” She finally decides that she will return to London rather than simply waiting out the years to be put in a nursing home. Later, while staying in her son’s home, she becomes increasingly attracted to her daughter’s boyfriend Darren, who’s working at her son’s house. They draw pictures for each other, trade poems, have lunch together, and take long walks. Eventually, if somewhat improbably, their relation turns erotic. This development will not be palatable to every member of the audience and, in fact, some of the film’s sex scenes, though always tastefully shot, and especially May’s partial nudity, will be seen by some as pushing the envelope of the acceptable. As can probably already be imagined, things do not turn out well for Darren and May’s relationship.
Formally, the film is built around a series of euphonious sounds and silences that provide an almost symphonic structure to it. Michell also knows how to wield his camera, cutting, for example, to an almost bereft extreme long shot after the improbable lovers’ first illicit kiss. One of the more powerful themes developed by Kureishi and Michell is the marvelous (and sometimes uncomfortable) persistence of desire. May knows that an old woman like her shouldn’t be obsessed with Darren’s body, but, alas, there it is. Through her and her daughter’s membership in a writer’s group, and May’s erotic drawings of her fellatio on Darren, the filmmakers also explore the role of art in expressing and perhaps containing this unquenchable desire. The absolutely best part of the movie is the delicious delineation of the jealousy that May increasingly feels over any show of affection between Darren and her daughter. Some of the scenes featuring this trio will make your skin crawl.
One slight problem with the script is that Darren’s character is never really developed, hence we aren’t sure why he makes his choices, and thus the whole sexual relationship retains something of the improbable about it. However, it’s also true that giving the audience much more information about Darren would have inevitably drawn the focus away from May, who has to remain central for the film to work. More troubling is the film’s predilection for melodrama. This family is utterly dysfunctional, perhaps even more than drifter Darren, and the son is annoyingly weak and the daughter, especially, quickly becomes annoying with her constant whining, “what about MY feelings?” But these moments are relatively rare in what remains a disturbing, powerful film.