If Tennessee Williams had been born in Sussex without the strain of poetry in his soul, he might have written something like Hanif Kureishi’s script for “The Mother,” which arrives on screen directed by Roger Michell. In terms of its plot, it’s basically a kitchen-sink drama, although the kitchen is modern and sleek and the sink comes equipped with dishwasher and garbage disposal. The story, about two women–a sixty-something widow and her high-strung, divorced daughter–who both fall into lust with a virile but lower-class handyman, seems a distant cousin of a “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with faint echoes of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in Kureishi’s May, Paula and Darren. (To be fair, one could point to similarities to works by the likes of Odets, Inge and Chayefsky, too.) But the tone of the picture is very different from those American efforts of the forties and fifties. Michell, who’s shown his versatility in the past by directing such very different successes as the Jane Austen adaptation “Persuasion,” the light British comedy “Notting Hill” and the didactic American melodrama “Changing Lanes” (which also recalled earnest fifties plays), directs in this instance with a chilly sterility that keeps the characters at an emotional remove, despite the depths of passion they’re experiencing. Even the sex scenes–which are fairly numerous and fairly explicit–have a cold, mechanical quality to them. That’s deliberate, of course, but it makes for a weird combination–like a florid Douglas Sirk-style women’s picture told in the austere style of late Kubrick. Despite its acutely observed detail, the resultant mixture proves a failed experiment.
If there’s a reason to see “The Mother,” it’s the performance of Anne Reid, who plays the reserved, somewhat dowdy but surprisingly intelligent housewife May, whose life changes when she and her elderly husband Toots (Peter Vaughan, excellent as usual) come to London to visit their grown children: Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), an always-on-the-go businessman with a career-woman wife named Helen (Anna Wilson Jones) and two rather bratty children, and Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), an emotionally charged writing teacher who’s having a difficult time coping with life as a single mother to her young son. The premise is not unlike that of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” but the route the narrative takes couldn’t be more different. When Toots dies of a sudden heart attack, May finds herself unable to return to their house, and decides to stay for a while with the spineless Bobby and the very reluctant Helen. Their house is already crowded by reason of the fact that a scruffy carpenter friend of Bobby’s, Darren (Daniel Craig), is constantly underfoot, building an addition to the house designed to increase its value. Darren, an estranged husband with an autistic son, is also the man in Paula’s life. May believes that Darren is beneath her daughter, but she herself falls for him, and soon the unlikely couple are hitting the sheets themselves. Paula, meanwhile, tries to fix her mother up with Bruce (Oliver Ford Davies), one of her older students who’s desperate for companionship, and after she finds out about May’s dalliance with Darren, she uses the man to humiliate her mother on a double date. May, however, can’t overcome her longing for Darren; even after he proves to be something of a brute with lots of gambling debts he’d like May to cover, she wants them to go away together.
This sounds like a soap opera, and it might certainly have been played that way. But although Kureishi does include some overloaded dialogue (Paula is a particular offender in this regard, and the explosive confrontation between May and a Kowalski-like Darren in the final reel has purple patches as well), for the most part he has his characters speak in dry, commonplace tones, with May, in particular, remaining rigidly controlled and laconic even at the most emotional moments. Michell accentuates the mood with his deliberate, almost parched approach. (When May and Darren have their big row, for example, he shoots it from a discreet distance, with the man partially obscured by a wall.) Neither script nor direction, however, can entirely stifle the power of Reid’s performance: the actress quietly registers May’s feeling of dislocation and misplaced desire through subtle shifts of attitude. Apart from Vaughan, who checks out early, however, no one else matches her. Craig never manages to make Darren’s abrupt turns from sensitivity to bluster very credible, and Bradshaw simply overplays Paula: in her performance the soap operatic element really emerges. Mackintosh makes the feckless Bobby appropriately weak (though the fellow’s financial difficulties represent a subplot never satisfactorily explored) and Jones draws Helen in suitably harsh tones, but they’re really on the fringe of things.
At the close of “The Mother,” it appears that Kureishi intends the piece to be taken as a story of female liberation, in which a woman long constrained by the dictates of marriage finally works her way toward a sort of hopeful independence. That turns out to be just another way in which the picture ultimately proves to be rather conventional–something that its stylistic sharpness can’t entirely conceal. In the end it comes across as an amalgam of very disparate elements that are never really integrated into a unified or compelling whole.