Every element of "The Mother," directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, fits together with perfection. The film's staging — the way its settings create a world that allows for striking images that echo the psychological interplay of its people, the way in which every performance could not be any better — is awe-inspiring.
Yet what is impressive is that the effect of all this precision is not in the least mechanical or lifeless. Michell and Kureishi are in essence upholding a splendid British tradition of careful planning and rehearsing so that when the camera rolls, everyone on either side of it is confident enough to let the story come alive with spontaneity, passion, humor, pain and joy. If ever there were a film that is all of a piece, it is "The Mother."
FOR THE RECORD: "Tokyo Story" —The review of the movie "The Mother" in Friday's Calendar section gave the year 1952 for Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story." The film was released in Japan in 1953. It also said that in Ozu's film the husband dies, when in fact it is the wife.
At first "The Mother" looks to be a remake of Yasujiro Ozu's classic 1952 "Tokyo Story," in which an older couple pay a visit to their adult children in Tokyo only to discover that they're not doing all that well, and in their struggle for survival they have little time for their parents. The couple returns home, the husband dies, and the film becomes a rueful contemplation of the transitory quality of life and a lament that children sometimes do not appreciate their parents until it's too late. "The Mother," however, proves to be more a rebuke than a variation.
Toots (Peter Vaughan), a large, silver-haired man who looks to be in his 70s, and his wife, May (Anne Reid), in her 60s, board a train in the north of England to visit their son, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), and daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), in London. Bobby and his chic wife, Helen (Anna Wilson Jones), live a modernized Victorian townhouse on a grand block. It's a hectic household, with Bobby and Helen preoccupied with their schedules and activities, and their two lively children view their grandparents as if they were Martians. Adding to the hubbub is the ongoing construction of a conservatory to the back of the home. That Bobby and Helen are less than thrilled with the arrival of Toots and May is ill-disguised.
They receive a warmer welcome from the single Paula and her two small children in her modest but charming old flat a rather lengthy walk from Bobby's home. Tuckered out by the walk, the frail Toots offers a touching toast at a family meal, which is too rich for his digestion. Shortly thereafter, Toots is felled by a fatal heart attack. Stunned rather than grief-stricken, May is accompanied to her home by Bobby, only to discover she cannot stand to stay there. In time she realizes that to do so would be to resign herself to her old age.
Returning to London with Bobby, May has instinctively started on a quest to discover how to come alive and overthrow her fear of moving beyond the confines of her abruptly terminated role as dutiful housewife. She actually felt so detached from her husband and children that in her own mind she wasn't even present, she admits to Paula.
The late flowering of May, expressed with such an inner radiance by Reid, a handsome mature woman, is beautiful to behold, but in the unexpected course it takes it is accompanied by painful consequences. Kureishi, who first came to renown as the screenwriter of Stephen Frears' "My Beautiful Laundrette," explores how difficult — perhaps even impossible — it is for human beings to pursue their dreams without being selfish, even deeply hurtful of those they ostensibly love.
Although Bobby's affluent lifestyle and marriage prove to be not what they seem, it is Paula who's really having a hard time. She berates May for never having shown her affection and encouragement. Paula is an effective teacher who also runs a writing workshop but struggles mightily to make it as a writer herself. She wonders out loud about what to do with her life. She is in love with Darren (Daniel Craig), the hunky carpenter who is building her brother's conservatory. Not only is Darren married but he's also, worse luck for Paula, the devoted, loving father of a young autistic son. In her way, Paula is as self-absorbed by misery and frustration as May is by her process of self-discovery.
Not only are the spaces and designs of Bobby and Paula's homes expressive of their inhabitants' predicaments, but London in all its glories unfolds seemingly infinite possibilities for May with its grand cityscapes, splendid museums and vital street life. Michell's cameraman, Alwin Küchler, photographs London with the loving glow Woody Allen films bestow upon New York. Jeremy Sams' subtle score, Mark Tildesley's superb production design and Natalie Ward's apt costumes are also major contributions.
There is simply not a false note in this film — every actor looks and behaves so exactly right that it is unthinkable that any other person play his or her role. Although it can be taken as a cautionary tale on the perils of unconscious selfishness, "The Mother" is even more concerned with the need to take chances, to learn to embrace life confidently — even if it sometimes means being selfish.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, including graphic images of sexuality; language; and brief drug use.
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes and situations, completely unsuitable for youngsters even if they are accompanied by adults.
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a BBC Films production. Director Roger Michell. Producer Kevin Loader. Executive producers Angus Finney, Stephen Evans. Cinematographer Alwin Küchler. Editor Nicolas Gaster. Music Jeremy Sams. Costumes Natalie Ward. Production designer Mark Tildesley. Art director Mark Digby. Set decorator Michelle Day. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times