The Mother

The interplay of light and texture in Alwin Küchler’s fine cinematography alone makes the British film The Mother worth seeing. There are other reasons not to miss this sensitive, perceptive drama about a widow’s erotic re-awakening in the hands of a swaggering, pansexual carpenter some 30 (or more) years her junior. But to begin with a few images.

On the afternoon that May (Anne Reid) and Darren (Daniel Craig) retreat for the first time to a spare room in her son’s London townhouse, and he satisfies her, the frame splits almost diagonally between sharp definition (a billowing, white lace curtain on the lower left) and deliberate out-of-focus (granting the lovers in bed a bit of post-coital privacy on the upper right). In one highly charged composition, the left side of the screen remains nearly blank while on the right all we see of Darren is a muscular arm thrusting up and down, sawing wood. Later, when May and Darren’s trysts have grown more adventurous and explicit, the camera pans above their bodies, above the sounds of May’s orgasmic pleasure, to reflect Darren’s face in the glass of a triptych hanging on the bedroom wall, black-and-white snapshots of wet, sandy beaches and imposing, crevice-filled rock formations. It’s a neat, economical way to distance the conventional metaphors of romance. Küchler also achieves delirious effects with candlelight and grainy stock—those I’ll let you discover on your own.

Mark Tildesley’s production design, too, deserves praise—the austere boxlike townhouse with its cobalt walls, red upholstery, and shiny surfaces gives Küchler’s probing camera a playground of pure visual delight. Roger Michell’s measured, unhurried direction has great dignity, occasional humor, and—in the scene where Darren and May stumble home from a boozy lunch—a feeling not unlike that fifth shot of tequila. Michell cues Jeremy Sams’ jazz trio score at exactly the right moments, knowing when to hold off. Sams composes music of pristine clarity; the jazz pianist Simon Chamberlain interprets it with a delicate touch that summons Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans to mind.

All of this would matter less without the realistic performances of Anne Reid and Daniel Craig at the film’s center. As a woman “not ready for old age,” Reid lives the role. Near the beginning when two men pantomime a cricket match, she walks alone into the foreground, excluded from their chatter, conveying silent despair as she listens to birds chirping in the garden. She’s convincing in the sex scenes, although she impressed me the most when May reads aloud in her daughter’s writing class. Encouraged by the other confessors, May shares a memory of hating her children as a young mother and wanting to kill herself out of guilt. In this moment and others to come, The Mother discerns that we never recover from crimes committed in the name of family.

Craig fits so perfectly into a blue-collar wastrel persona that I never recognized him as “Ted Hughes” from that lifelessly reverent film about Sylvia Plath last year. Craig’s Darren is a bit of a goofball, which makes him even sexier. With his tattoos, tight body, piercing blue eyes, subtle ambiguity, and fox-colored whiskers that hint at gray on the chin, Craig would make an ideal Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw.

Unfortunately, the scenarist Hanif Kureishi, who was inspired to write about an older woman’s sexuality after his aged mother remarked, “No one will ever touch me again,” must have wanted a dramatic finish. The quiet, cultured May hasn’t been enough of a bitch to her daughter to bring on the contrived irrationality that bursts forth in the last 15 minutes or so. The words are true to life; the actions aren’t. What, then, are we to do, except settle for less? Four-fifths of a masterwork is preferable to none at all. – NPT

May 24, 2004