The Mother

(UK - 2003)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw, Peter Vaughan
Genre: Drama
Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler
Composer: Jeremy Sams
Runtime: 112 minutes

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Just when movies led you to believe no mature woman has a sex life comes this surprising work that not only stars an unknown (to moviegoers) female senior citizen, but one who gets it on with a much younger man who probably isn't just a gigolo. The film deals with a recently widowed woman, Anne Reid, finally learning to live after years of servitude in a loveless marriage where she just did what was expected of her like the other zombies. The title is quite fitting because she wasted her whole life playing a role she quite frankly was disinterested in, and thus was poor at.

Further avoiding the luridness and sensationalism of the taboo subject of a mother having an affair with her daughter's boyfriend (Daniel Craig), a carpenter working for both of her children, the film is gentle and understanding in the mode of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's excellent work with Brigitte Mira such as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In the beginning we see everyone’s indifference and contempt toward the mother, her children too busy with work, her grandson listening to the Walkman to avoid conversation. The story doesn't seem to be leading in the direction of the romance, but when it does things slowly turn in the other direction. We begin to see the perspective of her children, particularly the fragile daughter (Cathryn Bradshaw) who was damaged by never living up to her mother's expectations, never being praised by her or considered good at anything. Suddenly the mother who seems to have sacrificed her life for no reason begins to seem more selfish and destructive, with her children turning out the way they did at least partially due to her past failures.

Certainly taking the daughter's boyfriend at her age is a dagger in the heart of someone with an inferiority complex, but the film is not particularly judgmental. That is the most sensible tact because all the characters are selfish. They all gamble in one way or another, risking damaging others for their own potential rewards. The negative effects are in no way hidden, preventing the audience from being able to simply go along with the film without thinking or becoming a cheerleader with a few cries of “You go girl!” for the old codger. It’s not one of those films where it’s all good because the filmmakers and the characters say so. The film is thankfully uncomfortable at many times and corrosive when it needs to be. It does sympathize with the mother, but not in the usual cheap irritating manner that justifies her actions because, after all, she’s their hero/star. Instead it shows her alternatives, and they all point back to more of the same old dreadful crap.

We can understand why she doesn't want to go in the other directions, but that doesn't mean the ones she chooses are perfect. Her relationship with Craig not only keeps her from withering away, but brings back some of her youth, for instance her ability to draw. But it's still a timebomb relationship.

Stage actress Reid gives a memorable performance that perfectly accomplishes the balancing act the film is trying to pull off. We are happy she's able to achieve the improbable late life awakening, to trade some of her vulnerability and repression for the spark of liberation and dignity, but unable to ignore the fact that it belongs to a long line of offenses against her children. She is quiet, with the only "shocks" in the film coming from the daring directness of her conversation, which is always refreshing in these days of political correctness making it that much more difficult for anyone to express what they are thinking, feeling, or simply wanting to know.

The script by My Beautiful Laundrette's Hanif Kureishi is a major strength. Though in a sense there's nothing particularly new or surprising about it, it's rare that this story is told at all, and with maturity, intelligence, and grace. Roger Michell simply proves he's able to make an interesting film when he avoids sentimentality, mawkishness, and generally his usual commercial choices such as casting no acts like Julia Roberts and Ben Affbleck. Some of the decisions by Kureishi and Michell are still poor, mostly revolving around Craig's character. He goes from not caring about what he's "supposed to" to being a big destructive baby breaking windows and other such nonsense that seems out of place within the context of his character and the rest of the film. But the film is good enough to forgive it a bit of histrionics.





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