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Mother Courage
The Mother
East Bay Express

The first exceptional drama of the year is here, and it took, what, five months? Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Mother comes from British writer Hanif Kureishi, who penned the gritty, South Asian-in-London marvels My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic. On the other hand, its director is Roger Michell, lately of the Ben Affleck romp Changing Lanes. Huh? It’s only when you dig a little deeper into Michell’s bio, uncovering the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, that The Mother begins to make sense.

Indeed, though set in contemporary England and far from prim, The Mother owes a debt to Austen and her dissection of domestic drama. Here as in Austen, what is hidden within individuals is played out on the family stage, where desires clash and cruelty can flare in the smallest gesture. Family members devastate each other with casual assertions delivered in passing: “Don’t you think it’s about time that she looked after herself?”

Whatever its pedigree, The Mother is an excellent film, one that feels like life, sharpened to its finest points. It unfolds in a series of impeccably crafted domestic scenes, each exploring the life of a provincial woman who has, until now, been half-dead, playing the roles of wife and mother without bothering to inhabit them. When she wakes up to herself, it’s not simply a stirring, fortuitous surprise (though it is that); it’s a bother to those accustomed to her absence. Acknowledging one’s feelings, and acting on them, is not always benign. Sometimes it’s damaging.

The Mother opens as the title character, May (Anne Reid), lies awake in a dreary room, her lump of a husband (Peter Vaughan) snoring beside her. Together, with the lassitude of people resigned to decline, they dress in dreary clothes, sit in a colorless kitchen, and travel, wearily, to London to visit their children. There, they enter another world, a chaotic circus of people in motion, almost painfully alive. At their son’s house, the tottering grandparents are frozen in the crossfire of cell phones, arguments, screaming children, nannies, and home improvement.

There are two ways to go: succumb to death or begin to live. May’s husband dies; on their first night in town, after dinner, he clutches his chest and is finished. May, on the other hand, has work to do. Slowly, as she grieves, she pokes through her hardened carapace and emerges as a breathing, feeling woman. In doing so, she comes to understand the depth of her loss: that it’s her sense of self, long ago surrendered, that she truly mourns.

All of the above occurs within the first thirty minutes, and it wouldn’t spoil the ending to reveal what happens next. But one of the chief pleasures of The Mother is the opportunity to grow into the ensuing events alongside of May, even inside of her, rather than knowing ahead of time what she will do. Kureishi and Michell (and, of course, Reid) are breathtakingly real about May’s awakening: her giggly shyness, the bursts of bravery, the expansion of breath in the body and the spirit. Perhaps everyone should know that a woman in her sixties—even a prim housewife with a nearly extinguished soul—is a dynamic and desirous being. But nobody in Hollywood seems to.

Suffice it to say, May gets into trouble, with her daughter (Cathryn Bradshaw), a single mother wobbling through a destructive romance while trying to find her calling in life; with her son (Steven Mackintosh), a stressed-out businessman attempting to avert bankruptcy; and with Darren (Daniel Craig), her daughter’s boyfriend and her son’s carpenter, a man owned by everyone but himself.

There’s a lot of art in The Mother: a flawless script; generous, unflinching performances; and smart cinematography, often using an angle or a prop to comment on the action. In one scene, May sits on the edge of a fountain, miserable, as a hopeful suitor stands before her. Between them, the ubiquitous "Gap" sign gains profundity. But most remarkable is the way the film remains loyal to May’s point of view. It offers her compassion, even as the plot reveals the damage she has done. Her children seem far likelier candidates for sympathy, especially with their open wounds, inflicted by their mother’s failure to love. But the film chooses May, and in so doing, gives us access to someone we hadn’t known before.
retreat
onward