A dry-eyed account of an English grandmother’s affair with a strapping carpenter half her age (who also happens to be her daughter’s married lover), The Mother is a taboo-crusher that bracingly resists sensationalism and sentimentality. After her husband dies, sixtysomething May (Anne Reid) refuses to play the grieving widow. Her suburban home feels like a tomb—and a taunting reminder of a marriage in which she was more nursemaid than wife—so she heads for London, gate-crashing the lives of her monstrously self-absorbed children, both almost cartoonish paragons of urban neuroses.
Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), well-off and permanently agitated, has no time for his huffy wife and bratty kids, let alone his newly willful mum; Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), a single mother and failed writer, is a shrill, baggage-toting embodiment of psychoanalysis gone horribly awry. But May, pragmatically co-opting her kids’ me-me-me ethos, is busy being alive for the first time. “Now all I want to do are interesting things, things I love,” she announces, shortly before she makes a move on Darren (Daniel Craig), the handyman who’s working on a conservatory for Bobby’s fancy townhouse and mired in a miserable relationship with needy, ready-to-crack Paula.
Directed by Roger Michell in a crisp deadpan from Hanif Kureishi’s barbed screenplay, The Mother incubates its taboo almost-romance with great delicacy, away from the withering forces of stigma and prejudice. (Fittingly, much of the flirtation takes place in a greenhouse.) Surrounded by free-floating selfishness and hostility, May and Darren regard each other with mutual curiosity and compassion, and for a while, at least when they’re alone, their coupling seems like the most natural thing in the world. There’s wry humor in the slow buildup—May gazing wistfully at Darren, temptingly bent over a workbench in low-slung jeans—but also generosity and empathy. The film handles the awkward stages of this improbable courtship beautifully, without cuteness, coyness, or a desire to shock. Their first kiss, after a liquid lunch and a lazy afternoon stroll, is a lovely moment of pure impulse. When May decides to ask for more, the meek hopefulness of her proposition is devastating: “Would you come to the spare room with me . . . would you?” (In a nice, Kureishi-esque touch, she’s contentedly humming “Space Oddity” the morning after.)
The Mother updates Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, which itself revamped Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but typically for Kureishi, the most dour of humanists, his forbidden lovers are hardly mere victims. May is a more morally ambiguous character than Brigitte Mira’s or Jane Wyman’s in those earlier movies. Her sweet-old-lady disposition is deceptive—it certainly fools her children. (It’s surprisingly easy to forget that this woman is stealing her daughter’s boyfriend.) May’s viperish potential flickers to the surface in a remarkable scene at Paula’s writing group, predictably conducted like a New Age workshop; Paula asks her mother to join in a “sense memory” exercise, and May contributes a casually scalding little piece, which she reads out loud, about walking away from her crying babies 30 years ago. The relish that Kureishi takes in punishing Paula gets wearying, although having her find out about the affair by stumbling upon her mother’s crude pencil renderings of fellatio—try dealing with that in therapy—is an inspired bit of nastiness.
Even when the film succumbs to a late spasm of unconvincing melodrama, Reid is quietly amazing, at once fearless and vulnerable. “If I sit down, I’ll never get up again,” May tells Bobby. By turns expansive and astringent, The Mother is a portrait of a woman who, with the dazed courage of someone finally awakened to the world after decades of passivity and repression, keeps on walking.