Fortunately, Judge Bryan Byun doesn't have any hangups about his mother, or else this starkly emotional drama would have driven him straight into therapy.
It can take a lifetime to feel alive.
"You're only as old as you feel." So goes the familiar inspirational homily. But what does it mean to feel old? What does being old feel like? When you're a kid, you look at old people (that is, people over the age of 30) and they may as well be alien life forms. You can't imagine what must go on in those codgers' heads, how different their values, dreams, and desires must be. You don't think of your grandparents, or even your parents, as being anything like you. Then, one day, you're in your mid-thirties and you realize with a shock that you've finally become one of those codgers, and yet you don't feel any different. You may have learned a few things about life, but beneath the graying hair and sagging body parts, you're still essentially the same vaguely confused, appetite-driven creature you were when you were nine.
That's the central theme of The Mother, a quietly perceptive, brutally honest 2003 drama by director Roger Michell (Enduring Love, Notting Hill) and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) about an affair between an older woman and a much younger man. Critically well received and nominated in 2004 for the BAFTA and British Independent Film awards for Anne Reid's brilliant performance in the title role, The Mother has made it to DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. If the subject matter leads you to expect a steamy romance ripped from People magazine headlines about Ashton and Demi, think again; this chilly portrait of a dysfunctional May-December romance is about as erotic as the idea of your parents getting it on.
Facts of the Case
May (Anne Reid) and Toots (Peter Vaughan) are a perfectly average older couple, who travel to London to pay a visit to their grown children, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). It's a typical family, which is to say dysfunctional: Bobby, who has his own family, has distanced himself from his parents over the years; and Paula, a single mother, struggles with emotional neediness and low self-worth. Both children harbor deep resentments against their parents, particularly their mother, who has never been especially warm or nurturing toward her offspring. They're much more comfortable with their effusive, outgoing father.
So when Toots dies abruptly during the first night of their visit, the aftermath is awkward and a little chilly; Toots was clearly the emotional center of the family, and his departure leaves a cold, empty hole that May is simply not equipped to fill—nor do the children really expect or want her to. Unwilling to go back to her now-empty house, but hardly embraced by Bobby or Paula, May falls into an uneasy state of limbo as she works out exactly who she is, now that she is no longer defined by her mate, and what to do with the rest of her life.
Enter Darren, a handyman and childhood friend of Bobby's who is building a room onto Bobby's house. Darren is a gentle, artistic soul, with an easy smile and a quietly charming demeanor—and also happens to be handsome and ripped. May, who's both intrigued and repelled by this sensitive rogue, discovers that her daughter is in the late stages of an affair with Darren (who's married, with a son), and Paula can't give Darren up, even though it's obvious that he's not exactly the commitment type. Paula begs May to suss out Darren's intentions and true feelings, which May reluctantly agrees to do.
Complications, as they say, ensue. May (appropriately named, as it turns out) discovers that she has much in common with this talented young man, and finds a kindred spirit in his restless desire for escape and self-discovery. (His penchant for walking around shirtless, displaying his six-pack abs, doesn't exactly hurt his appeal, either.) Darren, perhaps responding to the older woman's intense loneliness, or perhaps for reasons more complicated, reciprocates May's feelings, and the two of them stumble into a doomed romance.
The basic storyline of The Mother sounds more like the stuff of romantic farce than psychological drama (and I'm sure some Hollywood producer is already dreaming up a romantic-comedy remake with Sigourney Weaver and Orlando Bloom), or, at the very least, one of those life-affirming tales of a repressed woman's sexual awakening. Indeed, much of the buzz the film received centered around the notion of a plain, frumpy, "real" woman embroiled in a passionate sexual relationship. But The Mother has much more going on than that; it's concerned with the universal human experience of growing older, and the expectations and roles that society foists upon us as we do.
Why is the idea of our parents as sexual beings so disturbing to us? One reason, perhaps, is that such a notion threatens the role that we as children have placed them in—the role of caretaker and nurturer, beings that lack any needs of their own and exist solely to satisfy ours. We don't expect or want our parents to be people in the sense that we imagine ourselves. The same goes for elderly people in our society; we expect them to fade quietly into the background, their purpose in life complete.
Most people resign themselves to their new roles, but May doesn't; she rebels against the expectations placed upon her by her family and her peers. She's pushed to accept a more "age-appropriate" partner (never mind that he's all wrong for her), and pushes back—hard—against that facile pigeonholing. May feels hemmed in—as she always has—by the demands of her children, and the death of her husband is the event that frees her to explore who she is and what she wants out of life. The film doesn't give in to easy heroics, however; our decisions have consequences, and we are shown how May's chafing at her role as mother and wife has adversely affected her children. The Mother doesn't allow the viewer to take sides and divide the characters into good guys and villains; their issues and conflicts aren't wrapped up in neat sitcom style by the end credits.
The film turns on the character of Darren, whose motivations are a little tricky to figure out, mainly because he himself doesn't know what he wants. "I'm making it up as I go along," he tells May. He's dependent financially on the women around him, and is drifting along through life, bouncing from one affair to another, drawn to emotionally needy women because his ability to satisfy their needs is one of the few things that validates his existence…just as it slowly erodes his self-worth. Darren becomes the focal point of both Paula's and May's lives, and for completely opposite reasons: Paula clings to Darren's nurturing personality as an oasis of comfort and emotional security; May sees in Darren's poetic heart a fellow dreamer and adventurer. Which is all well and good, except that what both of these women are seeking in Darren is a man who will stay put, and that is not something he's equipped to do.
There's a lot going on in The Mother, about what it means to grow older, about why we simultaneously crave and fear intimacy, about the way we respond instinctively to each other's needs even when that is precisely the last thing we ought to do. The filmmakers treat these themes fairly and don't kneecap them with cheap sentiment or tidy resolutions. It's not an easy film to watch, for a number of reasons. The way the film depicts sexual relationships is almost painfully frank, to the point where it's difficult sometimes to watch the screen—not because of what's being displayed, but because of what's being said, and because of the little gestures and expressions and pauses that convey things about why people have sex that most of us would rather not think about.
All this sounds about as warm and fuzzy as a Kubrick opus, but The Mother is fundamentally a hopeful film, one that depicts the problems of human relationships in unflinching, brutally honest detail, but also points the way towards solutions. Those solutions may not be easy to achieve, or the kind of happy ending promoted by countless romantic comedies, but they are there to be found.
Sony's DVD presentation of The Mother features a widescreen anamorphic transfer, Dolby 5.1 surround audio (in English only), and subtitles in English and French. Video quality is excellent, with an exceptionally clear and bright image that is occasionally marred by film grain. Colors are intentionally muted at times but are generally vivid and well defined. The Mother isn't a visually flashy film, but a few crucial scenes make excellent use of color, texture, and composition, and the DVD captures those nuances quite well. The 5.1 audio seems almost extravagant considering that this is primarily a dialogue-driven film with little activity in the surround field, but the sounds are crystal clear—and the surround does get put to good effect in a couple of important shots.
The major bonus feature is an audio commentary featuring director Michell and producer Kevin Loader, and it provides a good balance between production information and discussion of characters and story. One huge peeve I have regarding commentary tracks is that the filmmaker always seems to be discussing things like lighting or camera angles during key dramatic scenes, when what you really want to know is what's going on between the characters, or how the actors prepared for the scene. Luckily, Michell for the most part gives proper due to the important moments of the film, so it's well worth checking out for any viewers interested in delving deeper into the film's production or themes.
The other extras include a fairly standard behind-the-scenes featurette (notable for the appearance of screenwriter Kureishi), and a selection of previews.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many viewers will undoubtedly find The Mother unbearably tough sledding. Frankly, it's not an easy movie to like; the characters are deeply flawed, and none of them are wholly sympathetic (even the kids are alternately likable and annoying). Neither the older woman–younger man romance nor the various family relationship issues are resolved in a way that will make the viewer swoon with cathartic satisfaction. And the overall approach to the story, while not exactly cold, is certainly unsentimental and perhaps a bit jaundiced. Finally, as noted earlier, the very notion of an older woman—an unglamorous, plain, and clearly aging woman—expressing her sexuality in a frank and unvarnished way will be disturbing to some.
Those looking for more conventional Mrs. Robinson–style sexual fireworks would probably do better to watch Y Tu Mama Tambien instead; and for those looking for a romance between eccentric misfits, Harold and Maude this ain't. But while it's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year, The Mother is one of the most emotionally honest and keenly perceptive dramas since 2001's In the Bedroom, a poignant glimpse into the human heart in its twilight years.
The court finds The Mother not guilty, on the condition that it stop acting all gooshy with Dad in the living room right in front of my friends.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Roger Michell and Producer Kevin Loader
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