What I’m interested in is minds. With sex, you are vulnerable and crazed and disrupted.
— Hanif Kureishi, New York Times (23 May 2004)
May (Anne Reid) lies awake just before dawn, her husband Toots (Peter Vaughan) snoring faintly beside her. In the morning, she helps him dress, ties his shoes, and packs his suitcase, as they head from their suburban home into London, to spend time with children and grandchildren. Their visit is cut short when Toots suffers a heart attack and dies. Her busy, distracted son Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) brings her home, and stands about, restless that she won’t sit down. When he offers to make her some tea and she refuses, he’s had enough. “Don’t be difficult,” he warns her. “Why not?” she asks, “Why shouldn’t I be difficult”?
In these first few minutes of The Mother, May is suddenly freed from a life spent accommodating and looking after others. With Toots, she tends to him and then stands in the background, as he attracts attention and speaks his emotions, warmly and tearfully; at dinner with his kids, he tells them outright how proud he is of them, and with a worker at Bobby’s house, he’s happy to discuss cricket, even as May wanders off, unintroduced to Toots’ new acquaintance and lonely-seeming in the foreground as the men play at swinging bats in the background.
Once she is actually alone, however, she’s understandably unnerved (she insists that she can’t leave Toots alone, dead on his hospital bed). At her home with Bobby, she rejects his suggestions that she quietly disappear, and insists instead that he bring her back with him to London. There she shuttles between his home and his sister Paula’s (Cathryn Bradshaw). While the situation at Bobby’s is stressful (his cashmere sales are falling off, his wife resents May’s intrusion and his noisy kids barely tolerate her), Paula’s is even less stable. A touchy-feely writing teacher whose students adore her, she’s in a fitful relationship with Bobby’s old college friend Darren (Daniel Craig). Married and apparently harried (his repeatedly referenced autistic son remains offscreen), he’s a longtime carouser currently contracted to build Bobby’s conservatory (with a closet unfinished over at Paula’s).
Even as May is troubled by Darren’s irresponsible treatment of Paula, she also partly blames her daughter; the newly in-therapy Paula confesses after a few glasses of wine that she’s always felt unloved and unappreciated by her mother. Even more complicated is May’s arousal by their raucous sex (after which they argue, Paula cries, and Darren stumbles heads back to his wife). Unmoored after years of fearful, tactful good behavior, May’s unsure how to respond to her own ardor, jealousy, and resentment. As if she’s Paula’s high school girlfriend, May agrees to find out Darren’s intentions, then can’t stop herself: “What are you doing with Paula?” she asks point blank. He comes back, “How can you ask that?” plainly intrigued by her honesty and naïveté.
Within days, May and Darren are having rowdy afternoon sex themselves, in Bobby’s sunny “spare room.” While Darren may be having yet another adventure, for May, the experience is life-changing. Aside from her emotional relief (“I thought nobody would ever touch me again, apart from the undertaker”), she’s enraptured by the physical sensations of un-missionary sex. Darren is perpetually adolescent, angry and awkward: he plays air guitar, drinks and takes whatever pills he happens on (asked why, he shrugs, “I don’t know”).
On their first outing, shortly after Toots’ death, he takes May to a cemetery (and apologizes as they arrive a the gate, after suggesting she will like his surprise: “I wasn’t thinking!”). He wonders aloud at May’s confession that she feels afraid to go home and be alone. “I imagined people getting less frightened as they got older,” he smiles, charmingly but also a bit dumbly, given her recent loss.
At the same time, Darren attends to her, wants to please her, jokes with her, and appreciates her attention as well (she gives him a book of artists’ sketches, and he’s pleased that she thinks she might appreciate such grace). It’s not long before May begins to see Darren as a sort of savior, or at least an attentive, sensitive romantic partner, someone who cares for her and wants to commit, enticed at least in part by the fact that she has a bit of money saved up.
Written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), The Mother is fraught with conflicting desires and frustrations. May’s new sense of self and awakened sexuality are startling, not least of all to her: she scrubs Paula’s floors while singing “Space Oddity” to herself, in a small, almost surprised voice. But she also can’t help but make order out of her new feelings, fitting them within her own experience and expectations; she imagines Darren will go away with her, leaving his wife, his child, her own daughter.
The film delicately reflects May’s shifting sensibilities, revealing her point of view (at a distance, across traffic, through doors barely opened), and framing her, as she steps forward into her own life, in doorways, windows, and mirrors. The first sex scene begins in an out-of-focus rush, set against empty walls and sheets that are almost too white, suggesting at once her self-abandonment and self-discovery. As they develop their secret relationship, she’s caught between Darren and Paula more often, or observing them interact as a “couple.”
Even as they must keep their trysts hidden from her children, Darren and May also seem to beg to be found out; she leaves her drawings of their sex acts on a table to be discovered; he agrees to dinners with Paula and May, kissing Paula (or allowing himself to be kissed, ravenously, for of course Paula knows) as May watches, such that juggling his related lovers becomes perversely thrilling if, at the same time, nerve-wracking.
The wrongness of the relationships in The Mother — all of them, really — has as much to do with the selfishness as the occasional generosity of the players. The film doesn’t judge them so much as it lets them run amok, careening until they must collide. Still, the camera remains austere, careful, even patient. It’s this distinction, between image and act, or frame and emotion, that remains most difficult.