What a strange combination of traits the new Hanif Kureishi picture The Mother (Sony Pictures Classics) has: It’s cool, almost clinical, yet emotionally ferocious, and not without sympathy for its characters’ fresh hells. On the surface it’s clean and precise, even a little fussy, yet one flight down it’s messy, twisted, ambivalent. It’s unsentimental, unbearably so, yet it doesn’t shut the door on the possibility of change. The story of a sexual relationship between a newly widowed woman in her late 60s and a 30-ish man who is also sleeping with her daughter, it’s a domestic drama on the edge of a haywire horror picture: The combination of female longing and male squirminess produces near-toxic vapors. It’s a remarkable film—one to gnaw at you and keep you up at night.
Much of its power is from the weirdness of its title character, May (Anne Reid)—and from our realization that she isn’t so weird, she’s just weird in the context of a movie. She’s actually all around us, everywhere—ricocheting between acts of selflessness and sudden, near-demonic selfishness. Her husband, known as Toots (Peter Vaughn), has kept her in line all her life, and now, as he has aged, become her demanding child. When we meet the elderly couple, they’re heading out to visit their grown kids in London: Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), with a trophy wife, two kids, an au pair, and a big house onto which he’s building an addition; and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), a bit of a wreck who’s raising a child by herself in the midst of a volatile affair with her brother’s lean, druggy carpenter, Darren (Daniel Craig).
Toots doesn’t survive the first night, and May announces that if she goes back home and sits down on the sofa, she’ll never get up. So her son—reluctantly—lets her stay with him, in a home in which her daughter-in-law can’t stand her and the emotional climate borders on the arctic. Bobby’s marriage and business are failing rapidly, and no one even feigns interest in the reserved but judgmental May. No one, that is, but the carpenter Darren, whom she approaches as an agent on her daughter’s behalf. She’s used to being invisible, but Darren doesn’t brush her off; and slowly, quietly, she begins to view him as an erotic object. And slowly, quietly, he comes to see her as—what? Big question. You could spend a few hours on that one, after you’ve seen the movie.
The Mother is a perfect union of writer and director. Kureishi and RogerMichell are both hyperintellectual, and the frames are packed with novelistic detail. (An early composition in which the family bustles around the wide foyer, each member in his or her own private sphere, tells you all you need to know of this domestic ecosystem.) The script reeks with disillusionment: Is happiness possible with one person, one family, for any significant length of time? Kureishi’s kids have small parts in the film, but there isn’t a trace of coziness: He’s too aware of our inherent self-centeredness. But Michell, who directed Notting Hill (1999) and Changing Lanes (2002), has humanist leanings, and he never gives up on these characters. He keeps us fastened on Reid’s May: Is she handsome or monstrously ugly? Do we like her or find her grotesque?
Flush with sexual pleasure, Reid’s May confesses to Darren: “I thought no one would ever touch me again, apart from the undertaker,” and we’re with her, completely. Then she’s watching her lover with her daughter, Paula, and the possessive fury in her eyes is, well, unmotherly: I want. I want. I want. This is an astoundingly discomfiting performance—realistic but mythic—and it’s matched, note for note, by Craig’s tender-hearted opportunist. Bradshaw’s Paula, disheveled both physically and emotionally, and painfully raw, is right up there with them. The Mother pushes past our standard responses to soap-opera tidiness into uninterpretable—virgin—territory. It provokes our judgments and then explodes them. It leaves you certain of nothing—except that neediness never dies, it’s always waiting to come back and bite you in the ass.