Movie review: 'The Mother'

3 stars (out of 4)

Few movie genres are more prone to sentiment and artificial uplift than the domestic drama or film romance. But "The Mother" is a soap opera with guts: a movie that takes a familiar situation--the May-December class-clashing romantic structure of Douglas Sirk's archetypal 1955 film "All That Heaven Allows"--and turns it into something rawer and more sexy.

Like Sirk's movie, "The Mother" shows us a taboo-defying and family-alienating romance between an older upper middle class widow and a younger working class guy. But director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") and writer Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette") don't try to solicit tears and poetry. They make this affair so real, it hurts--as it would in real life.

In the film, Anne Reid, a remarkable British actress in her 60s ("Love and Death on Long Island, "Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave"), plays May, who's had a long but dissatisfying marriage with husband Toots (Peter Vaughan). And Daniel Craig, who acted poet Ted Hughes in "Sylvia," plays Darren, an uneducated but charming builder who's employed by one of her children and sexually involved with the other. Soon, secretly, May is in bed with Darren as well.

The slide into what becomes moral chaos is gradual. When Toots dies, he leaves May alone and torn between those two children: the seemingly hugely successful businessman Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and the more unbuttoned and Bohemian writing teacher Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). When Bobby's mean, boutique-owning wife Helen (Anna Wilson Jones) nixes a stay with her mother-in-law (whom she tells Bobby she "can't stand"), May winds up with the sweeter but more troubled single parent Paula--and eventually, covertly, with Darren.

May and Darren, in a way, are reaching for beauty and shattering taboos as much as their "Heaven," predecessors, Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. But the fact that their motives are also impure, selfish and destructive shows how differently the filmmakers want us to respond to their liaison.

When R. W. Fassbinder remade "All that Heaven Allows" in Germany in 1974 as "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," he portrayed 60ish Brigitte Mira's widow as a deeply sympathetic figure and cast his own real-life boyfriend, El Hedi Ben Salem as her lover. Todd Haynes, in his Sirk-drenched "Far From Heaven" also loaded the dice for his lovers, who defied racial as well as class taboos--though the age difference was softened.

But Kureishi and Michell aren't interested in sexual heroism, or even in romance. They're more concerned with family dynamics, dysfunction and sheer sexual impact.

To that end, they make almost all the characters selfish and essentially unsympathetic. May, we eventually learn, was a distant, unemotional mother who has left Paula a neurotic and Bobby a stoic, false-faced money-grubber. When May goes after Darren, it's less escape than betrayal; she's sabotaging her generous daughter's relationship and self-image. And when Darren responds, we're uncertain of his motives--though eventually, he's partly revealed as a hedonist and opportunist with a drug habit and dangerous debts.

It's a testament to Kureishi's powers as a writer--and Michell's as a director of actors--that we can feel some of the twisted magic of this romance and some sympathy for these damaged and damaging characters. And it's a triumph for the actors that they keep all the situations so unpredictable and paralyzingly real. Reid and Craig, in particular, give us charm before they take us underneath to the unpleasant, egoistic side.

Even director Michell's own children, Harry and Rosie, join in the sabotage, playing Bobby's kids (also Harry and Rosie) as two of the more self-absorbed and odious tots in recent filmdom.

Self-absorption is the vice of all these characters. That, not sex, is their sin--and Michell, Kureishi and their fine cast show this with a lucidity that cuts to the bone, a candor that draws blood.

"The Mother"

Directed by Roger Michell; screenplay by Hanif Kureishi; photographed by Alwin Kuchler; edited by Nicolas Gaster; production design by Mark Tildesley; music by Jeremy Sams; produced by Kevin Loader. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, June 18. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (sexual content including graphic images of sexuality, language and brief drug use).
May - Anne Reid
Toots - Peter Vaughan
Helen - Anna Wilson Jones
Darren - Daniel Craig
Bobby - Steven Mackintosh
Paula - Cathryn Bradshaw
Jack - Carlo and Sachin Kureishi

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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