The Mother – dir. Roger Michell
South African director Roger Michell is a hard filmmaker to categorize. Following the limp Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy Notting Hill and the Hollywood thriller Changing Lanes, much better than it should have been and maybe the best film of Ben Affleck’s acting career, he reunited with novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette) after the 1993 BBC mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia with The Mother. On the surface The Mother is a routine chronicle of an older woman (Anne Reid, in a marvelous performance) who discovers life following the death of her husband (Peter Vaughn). May’s particular life discovery comes in the form of a hunky younger man (Daniel Craig), but Michell and Kureishi elevate The Mother into something considerably more profound than it looks on paper.
Long before May and Darren initiate a sexual relationship, Michell establishes a magnificent visual panorama, adorned in shades of white and empty spaces. The minimalist piano score, composed by Jeremy Sams known best as a theatre director, compliments the images beautifully, as both sculpt The Mother’s distinctive, enveloping mood. The Mother isn’t about reinventing yourself, but about a specific person who tries such task, with very mixed results.
For May’s two adult children Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), her daughter-in-law (Anna Wilson-Jones) and her grandchildren (all played by, in a weird bit of casting, Michell and Kureishi’s actual children), her inability to return home is a major inconvenience. For Bobby, May interferes with his life in the present, one that’s defined in chaotic business ventures and scrambling children and on the verge of collapse. For Paula, May’s arrival in London becomes a convenience in her present life, being able to babysit her son while she recklessly tries to turn Darren (Craig) into the man she wants him to be, but despite the luxury of a free babysitter, years of therapy have convinced her that May is root of all her troubles.
May’s attraction to Darren goes beyond his good looks. Hired by Bobby to construct a sunroom addition to the house, Darren is in the house more than the family who lives there, and unlike May’s family who have too much going on to bother with a sincere interaction with her, Darren shows the compassion and attentiveness they lack. This leads to some fiery, yet tasteful sexual encounters between the two. As prime for melodrama as the scenario is, Michell and Kureishi keep things gracefully reserved, and when the film does get to hot-blooded meltdowns, it’s all in character, especially for the emotional trainwreck Paula.
The whole “older woman fucks a younger man” aspect is what most people remember about The Mother, but it only makes up a small portion of the film. What makes The Mother so remarkable is its depiction of concentrated familial tumult, where selfishness and discomfort prevail over any strand of compassion (which is usually regarded as a faux pas). It’s also a sad window into the way people address their problems. Don’t think the filmmakers set out to condemn modern therapy; The Mother never advocates nor condemns any of its characters’ actions, no matter how questionable. Paula’s character in particular is a shining example of the age of blame, where people start to believe they’re wholly unaccountable for their own actions (and fuck-ups). The Mother is one of the ‘00s hidden triumphs, a quietly resplendent study of modern family and death.
With: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw, Steven Mackintosh, Anna Wilson-Jones, Peter Vaughn, Oliver Ford Davies, Harry Michell, Rosie Michell, Carlo Kureishi, Sachin Kureishi
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Cinematography: Alwin Küchler
Music: Jeremy Sams
Country of Origin: UK
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Premiere: 16 May 2003 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 2 May 2004 (Tribeca Film Festival)