It’s practically impossible to discuss The Mother without mentioning Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both are love stories that involve an older woman’s affair with a much younger man. In both cases, the film’s magnetism comes from the unusual, some might say unnatural, pairing.
R for Sexual content, language, brief drug use
The Mother opens with two British senior citizens traveling to see their children. His frequent stops to catch his breath telegraph his demise. Their family is not the most nuclear, nor the happiest. Their son Bobby (Steven Mckintosh) is married to a woman who resents them, and their grandchildren are selfish and ungrateful. Their daughter Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw) is middle aged, still single, and still clinging to her unrealistic dreams.
This unhappy family ensures that when father dies, mother (May, played by Anne Reid), is more alone than she’s ever been. Bobby senses her loneliness and lets her stay with them, but his wife can’t hide her hostility. Paula’s place is not as hostile, but it’s also not as spacious or private, and mother and daughter butt heads. Try as she might, May can’t keep from nosing into her daughter’s affairs, some of which are literally affairs. Paula is sleeping with Darren (Daniel Craig), a contract laborer who is married, but separated.
Making the most of her mother’s meddling, Paula asks May to try to pry Darren for information. When will he leave his wife and come to Paula? During the day, May hangs around her son’s house, where Darren is finishing a sunroom. She starts a conversation with him, unsure whether to be Paula’s advocate or Paula’s mother.
In a character-defying plot development, the defensive Darren opens up to May, and the two become friends. The change is so rapid and implausible that it happens over four lines of dialogue:
May: “What are you doing with Paula?”
Darren: “How can you ask that?”
May: “Want some tea?”
They start having lunch and tea together. They get close enough that one day, after lunch, several glasses of wine, and a friendly little stumble, May kisses Darren. One thing leads to another, and soon mother is having afternoon trysts with her daughter’s boyfriend.
May’s December Romance
There is something compelling about such a story. It’s a train wreck, both repellent and fascinating at the same time. Even if the young man were not the daughter’s boyfriend, the December-May romance would still be compelling.
Stephen Pinker, who studies the science of human nature, could probably explain why a May-December romance is palatable when the male is “December,” but not vice-versa. And yet the unfairness of that reaction is food for thought. Why shouldn’t it be accepted?
Comparisons to Fassbinder’s film leap to mind. Even the actresses look similar: Brigitte Mira and Anne Reid both have big bodies, round faces, and medium hair. Fassbinder, notorious for his cynicism and hopelessness, ironically had a much more positive outlook on these December-May romances. His story was naive and sad, but the people seemed good at heart and well-intentioned, more the victims of environment and nature than of cruelty. (It helps that Fassbinder’s relationship, although still contrived, was much more believable. Ali was a lonely immigrant with everything to gain and nothing to lose. Darren is just the opposite.)
Director Roger Michell’s vision is much less forgiving. His characters are selfish and mean, more from stress than from innate cruelty, but they’re harder to sympathize with. His story is not so tragic because his characters are less noble to start with. We don’t decry the unfair world they inhabit, but shake our heads at how self-centered and self-deceptive they can be. Fassbinder’s movie was sad; Michell’s is depressing. The Mother tries to end on a positive note, but the best it can do is to have its main character turn her back and walk out.
The Good Mother
This unfavorable comparison is too bad, because The Mother is so well crafted. The story is told visually. Even with the sound off (which is how the movie inadvertently started because of projector problems), you could follow the story. Everything is set up meticulously and sensibly. Throughout the movie, very little of the dialogue is critical to understanding the story. The sound design seems to pick up on this, as the chaos of family, visiting grandparents, and construction mayhem sounds like an even, unfocused pair of hearing aids.
The production design, too, hints at a deeper delving of the subject. Little pieces of the background aren’t random, but are in fact carefully chosen to emphasize the emotion or plot. Mother walks through town, past a big, practical, white bra, then passes a black lacy bit of lingerie, hinting at the two women who fight to be May.
There are very good performances, too, except for the key failure of Craig in selling the mental click that allows him to enter the relationship, although the script is also to blame. Toward the end there is a post hoc explanation of Darren’s leap into the relationship, and it’s hard to say whether the character is fooling himself or the screenwriter is trying to compensate for imperfect material.
In any case, the movie is a fascinating, well-crafted train wreck. It is worth a little coffee conversation afterwards, particularly for friends who have seen Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Unfortunately, it is not successful at the one thing it really tries to do.