“The Mother” is a memorable family drama by writer Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Launderette”) and director Roger Michell (“Changing Lanes”, “Persuasion”) that tackles complex issues which we rarely see on the big screen. Beneath the visually compelling and superbly composed scenes which are all shot with natural light, we experience family conflicts that reach a crescendo during a time of crisis.
When the first scene opens one is drawn in by what seems to be a warm and loving connection between the elderly May and Toots as they travel from their suburban home to visit their children who have busy lives in London. Anne Reid, the mother, May seems to love Peter Vaughan, the sanguine and appealing Toots, who appears to be experiencing health problems. That evening after Toots expresses love for his family in a touching dinner toast, he has a heart attack and later dies. After Toots’ death a web of family conflicts is unearthed, which have apparently been brewing for decades. May’s sudden loss of identity and purpose as a result of Toots’ death catapults her into a new world of struggles to find out who she is and to create a new plan for herself.
The acting is impeccable and a pleasure to witness, especially the masterful job by Anne Reid. Peter Vaughan is captivating in his brief nuanced performance as Toots. Another notable performance is the shrill narcissistic daughter-in-law, Helen played by Anna Wilson-Jones (“The Importance of Being Earnest”). Daniel Craig (“Road to Perdition”) as Darren, aces the role as the family “friend,” carpenter, and -- yes – lover…but I’ll get to that a little later.
This film is packed with fodder for the analyst’s couch. The daughter Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), an underachieving writer who is in psychotherapy, accuses her mother of not encouraging or even acknowledging her talents and abilities from early in life. If Paula surpasses her mother the mother would experience envy, and envy kills. The mother’s envy thwarts her child’s strivings for competence, the pervasive problem in Paula’s life.
Kureishi has a legacy of introducing influential issues in his films such as a gay relationship in his 1985 “My Beautiful Launderette”. It is laudable that he continues to do this in 2004, this time with an issue that is perfect for the graying and self-important boomers: sexual desire in old age. He also throws in the presently ubiquitous older woman – younger man theme and a love triangle between May, her daughter and Darren the carpenter, to boot.
The problem is, as impressive as it is that Kureishi deals with these sexual topics, they simply don’t work. It feels like the issues are tacked on, but not psychologically correct for these characters. I will allow almost any behavior from a grieving widow, and believe that May has the hots for Darren. But I don’t believe it is in her character to betray her daughter the way she does. And you never feel the heat between May and Darren and never get why he would go for her.
It is never clear who Darren is: Is he a kind, compassionate man whose love transcends superficiality? Is he a dissolute rat and con man who is after whatever he can get from these women? Or, is he a weak drug addict whose life is out of control?
“The Mother” does an inspiring job of broaching fascinating topics. It made me think for days, and it is a good first pass at the issues. But the characters lose integrity and the film gets spoiled along the way.
© 2004 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 06/04
UK - 2003