Film too rarely dares to tread where classic modern drama lived at the turn of the century: states of complex and stormy emotional realism. Ibsen and Chekhov shone a harsh light on human foibles, and their blinking characters felt, deeply, the torments of modern lifestyles and intimate relationships. With The Mother, screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell make a case for reinfusing theatrical technique into film. Though it ventures into the streets and shores and skies of London, The Mother is essentially a chamber drama putting a few key characters under a microscope within the walls of London homes.
One of those homes is, tellingly, under construction. May (Anne Reid), the titular mother, and her husband Toots (Peter Vaughan) visit the London home of their son Bobby (Steven Mackintosh). The posh townhouse is a tornado of activity which sets a precedent for the film's overlapping dialogue, with vaguely bratty children, ping-ponging parents, and Bobby's strapping buddy Darren (Daniel Craig) quietly adding a conservatory on the back lawn. In seconds, the townhome's actual occupants empty out, leaving the comfortably numb old couple to chat up Darren. Soon, though, Toots faces a medical crisis, and May—more profoundly alone than ever—seeks the solace she can't find with her children by wandering the streets of London.
After losing herself on a walk away from Bobby's home, May finds her way to the cramped apartment of her daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). Paula's a mess, a single mum so disoriented by years of amateur psychobabble that she's still flailing to sort out why she can't find professional fulfillment (as an unpublished writer) or personal fulfillment (with Darren, who's apparently unhappily married, with an autistic child). Paula restarts her relationship with her mother in passive-agressive fits and starts: blaming May for poor parenting, but begging her to ply Darren about his true feelings. Paula rhetorically asks May, "What are we going to with you?"; if this were Paula's tragedy, her tragic flaw would be her casual dismissal of her resilient mother.
Luckily, The Mother is too complicated to follow tragic convention. May gamely engages Darren, but soon her vague, understandable attraction to the studly young man turns to equally understandable romantic obsession, and The Mother moves into rarely charted dramatic territory. That Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Intimacy) and Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill) keep the story credible and honest testifies to their skill at subtly teasing out the intensity, emotional dynamism, and satirical bite we associate with Ibsen, within the milieu of modern cinema. Their sense of detail extends (sometimes overextends) to elegantly composed visuals, but their métier is observation of cruel interpersonal politics, which move momentarily into excruciating comic territory as the children discover their widowed mother is not the sexless lump they assumed her to be.
Though Kureishi fairly examines each character, he does so solely from the perspective of "The Mother," which brilliantly and unsettlingly uses cinematic terms to heighten the impact of the story. We know as little about Darren as May does, and we must suss out his emotional truth based on what he tells May in verbal and body language (expertly conveyed by Craig, last seen as Ted Hughes in Sylvia). Reid, whose character is often alone with the audience, commandingly lets us into May's mindset. Devastating truths seem to escape from her lips; at the outset of her late-life self-discovery, she retorts to her placating son, "If I sit down, then I'll never get up again." Soon, she's recklessly building herself up at Paula's expense, encroaching on her relationship with Darren, and spilling hurtful emotional secrets at her daughter's writer's group. Though the pre-fade-out non-resolution is arguably a cop-out, the final consignments of the characters pack punches all the same. The Mother's greatest triumph is refusing to paint any character as villainous or saintly: rather, they are inspiringly, horribly human.