The Mother
The Mother

USA, 2003. Rated R. 111 minutes.

Cast: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw, Steven Mackintosh, Anna Wilson-Jones, Oliver Ford Davies, Peter Vaughan
Writer: Hanif Kureishi
Original Music: Jeremy Sams
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler
Producers: Kevin Loader
Director: Roger Michell


Grade: B+ Review by Warren Curry

From Roger Michell, the director of recent box office hits Notting Hill and Changing Lanes, comes a British family drama reminiscent of the work of Mike Leigh. But unlike some of Leigh's films, Michell's latest, The Mother, doesn't simply string together a series of overwrought moments between tortured characters perpetually on the verge of succumbing to anxiety attacks. While the movie's interpersonal dynamics become quite intense, Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammie and Rosie Get Laid) create characters that laugh and smile nearly as much as they stew and shout. The Mother won't ever be mistaken for a lighthearted affair, but the lack of a black cloud hanging over every frame works greatly to its advantage.

Anne Reid stars as May, a grandmother in her sixties, whose world is turned upside down when her husband (Peter Vaughan) dies of a heart attack while they are visiting the families of their children, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). Unable to bear the thought of living alone in her suburban home (“If I sit down, I'll never get up again,” utters the woman to her son when she returns to the house), May decides to stay in London with Bobby, much to the chagrin of her domineering daughter-in-law, Helen (Anna Wilson-Jones). May initially looks like the proverbial fish-out-of-water, struggling to find her away around the city and unable to assimilate comfortably into Bobby and Helen's on-the-go household.

Relief comes in the form of Paula, who welcomes her mother into her flat, and more importantly, makes May feel needed. May happily looks after Paula's young son, allowing the single mother to focus more energy on both her personal passion—writing—and her married lover, Darren (Daniel Craig). May's impression of Darren is that he's not worthy of her daughter, and the woman encourages Paula to break up with him. Unsure about the long-term stability of being with Darren, Paula asks her mother to covertly talk to the man and discover his true feelings for her. In doing so, May has her passions reawakened by Darren and soon the two are embroiled in a torrid and complicated affair.

Anne Reid and Daniel Craig
Anne Reid and Daniel Craig star in The Mother.

While it may sound like a soap opera on paper, Michell avoids such territory by establishing an unhurried pace early on. His use of static long shots sets an even tone, and his camera movements—especially a few subtle tracking shots—are quietly effective. The director's precise compositions occasionally obscure his actors with walls or doors and always place them strategically within the frame. The austere production design gives the film additional visual and narrative space, emphasizing the mainly frigid relationship between May and her disaffected children.

May is a superbly fleshed-out protagonist, gradually embracing life with a newfound vitality after hitting rock bottom emotionally. When Paula, who begins to confront the feelings of maternal neglect she experienced as a child, asserts that her mother has lived an easy, carefree adult life, May confesses that it was one she was never happy in. From an older generation, which offered women few choices, May is only now starting to understand—and consequently abuse—the expanse of her newly found personal freedom. Darren is substantially more difficult to read. He disguises his emotions with a cheery exterior, and while he might not be a sophisticated thinker, it's clear that he is deeply sensitive. His infidelity seems motivated by the satisfaction he derives from pleasing others—a person who simply does not have the discipline to say no.

Anne Reid is perfectly cast in the lead role. She initially appears as the traditional, frumpy grandmother, but injects a vivaciousness that manifests itself physically as well as emotionally when she enters into the romance with Daniel. May certainly has a more old-fashioned outlook on life, but a dormant energy begins to emerge in several ways (such as in an affinity for drawing sketches—a hobby that, it turns out, she practices a bit too openly). Darren's attraction to May is easy to understand, and because of that, the relationship doesn't play out as just some odd novelty. There's never any sense of shock regarding the fact that a woman in her sixties is having sexual encounters with a man nearly half her age, which enables us to look at these people more lucidly.

By the time The Mother moves into its third-act, the film has earned the right to a little melodrama. While lesser directors could have turned this material into a cheap emotional roller coaster, Roger Michell's confident and graceful direction always ensures that this movie remains on firm ground. Although it might take an extra bit of patience in spots to fully appreciate the film's impact, the overall payoff is well worth the effort.

Review © May 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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