Dir: Roger Michell. UK. 2003. 112mins
A finely-shaded performance from veteran British actress Anne Reid is the shining centre of The Mother, a shrewd and believable portrait of an older woman's belated revolt against a life of quiet desperation. A thoughtful companion piece to the kind of themes previously explored in Shirley Valentine, it unfolds with a graceful sureness of touch that confirms the versatility and growing stature of director Roger Michell. Critical support and even the possibility of some awards recognition for Reid should help to raise its profile in the UK and earn it a solid base of discerning viewers who may recognise their own struggles and personal issues in screenwriter Hanif Kureishi's acutely observed scenes of family squabbles and middle-class life. The Cannes showcase in the Directors' Fortnight is the perfect launch to stimulate sales for a film that should strike an emotional chord in most territories.
If last year's Far From Heaven re-imagined Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows as a mixture of flawless pastiche and post-modern melodrama, then The Mother is almost a fresh contemporary reinvention of Sirk's most telling themes. Born into a generation of women willing to accept their fate and do their duty, Reid's May is fearful that the excitement and passion of life have passed her by and only physical decline and death await her. In the film's opening scenes, she arrives in London with her husband for a family visit and it quickly becomes apparent that both parents are an inconvenience in the slipstream of their children's busy lives. Attentive and loving, May is sleepwalking through her own life, concealing hidden depths and feelings that nobody may ever know about. The death of her husband and the kiss of a handsome young prince are the two things that awaken this sleeping beauty.
Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi previously collaborated on the television adaptation of Kureishi's novel The Buddha Of Suburbia and their partnership blossoms in The Mother. Michell has an eye for the telling detail: the abandoned slippers of a dead man; the twitching keys of an impatient son. Kureishi's screenplay is one of his most focused and engaging since My Beautiful Laundrette and paints an all too convincing portrait of grown-up children who think that everything revolves around them. When their father dies, their true wish is to see May out of sight and out of mind in her own home watching television and drinking sweet tea. 'Please don't be difficult, mother,' pleads son Bobby (Mackintosh). 'Why not'' she flashes back in the first sign that things will be different from now on.
Moving back to London and into her daughter Paula's (Bradshaw) home, she is tolerated at first as a handy child-minder and cleaner. Little cutting remarks and telling asides convince us that she is finally finding her own voice. Told her daughter is visiting a psychoanalyst, she remarks: 'Can't you talk to your hairdresser like everybody else'' A sharp, undercurrent of humour runs throughout a screenplay that is a world removed from the unrelenting gloom of Kureishi's work on Patrice Chereau's Intimacy.
Part of Paula's problem is her messy relationship with handsome young handyman Darren (Craig), her brother's best friend and resident builder. He is married with a son that we never see. May is asked to befriend him and discover his true feelings and intentions towards Paula. They both begin to enjoy each other's company and lunches together in which she lends a sympathetic ear to his stories and he builds her confidence. A warm companionship credibly builds to a heated sexual liaison that may not be the answer to her prayers, but is a profound act of liberation from her past.
Although it becomes clear that May has not been the most perfect of parents, she is such a fully-rounded character that she never loses our sympathy. Reid's expressions run the gamut from weary regret to a blissful smile that appears to light her from within and so we are always aware of exactly what she feels and what this all means to her. She never plays for pity, just captures the unvarnished reality of the situation and makes you believe it with every gesture and look. Craig has the more difficult role and his skill as an actor is to create an inner life for a character that could so easily have been some fantasy-style object of desire. The fact that we have no true picture of his wider world is a flaw and leaves you wanting at least one scene with his wife or son. It is a minor criticism of what will be seen as one of the more emotionally adventurous and ably executed British films of the year.
Prod cos: Renaissance, Free Range Films, BBC Films
Int'l sales: Renaissance Films
Prod: Kevin Loader
Exec prods: David M Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Angus Finney, Stephen Evans
Scr: Hanif Kureishi
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler
Ed: Nicolas Gaster
Prod des: Mark Tildesley
Music: Jeremy Sams
Main cast: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Steven Mackintosh, Cathryn Bradshaw, Oliver Ford Davies, Anna Wilson Jones, Peter Vaughan