The Mother (15)

Roger Michell (112 mins), Starring Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw
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The Independent Culture

In hindsight, a heart attack may have been the making of Roger Michell. Four years ago, flush with the success of cold, corporate Notting Hill and about to embark on the gloopy Captain Corelli's Mandolin, he was sidelined to the emergency ward and forced to take stock. The film that followed, Changing Lanes, was an arrhythmic Hollywood drama about a life in free fall. As scripted by Hanif Kureishi, The Mother, Michell's latest project, is better still: a savage, tingly-making portrait of one woman's sexual rebirth. And, rather aptly, it's a heart attack that sets her free.

May (Anne Reid) is the sixtysomething homemaker of the title, buried in the suburbs with husband, Toots. We note her fondness for shapeless shoes; also her mouth, which is suggestive of sour things being sucked. One morning, she and Toots set off to visit their offspring: successful Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), in his yuppie pile, and single mum Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw) in her basement flat. Both kids dwell in a west London so polluted with real life it would make Hugh Grant retch. The trip exhausts May. For Toots, with his dodgy ticker, it proves fatal.

May can't go back to her old life. After the funeral, she moves in with Paula, and starts ogling naked statues at the Tate Modern. Not long after that, she's ogling Bobby's laid-back builder friend, Darren (Daniel Craig), even though he's involved with Paula. May's eyes have been unpeeled and, when she and Darren begin an explosive affair, her own flesh is exposed. "Dear God," she says, "let us be alive before we're dead." May's stopped thinking of herself as a waste of space. But can those around her spare the room?

The Mother works because this isn't a simple game of them and us. So many stories, presenting us with an "awakening", are desperate to make the "awakee" a loveable rebel. Jenny Joseph wrote a fine poem, "Warning", about wanting to wear purple in old age, but its rallying cry has since become a cliché: I am wrinkled, hear me roar. May, by contrast, is spared any kind of flattering soft-focus. Astute and practical, this woman can also be phoney and cold. In one of the film's most splintering scenes, May reads aloud a poem about how she hated being a mother. Like Julianne Moore's character in The Hours, she found herself overwhelmed by her children and literally walked away from their cries.

Darren, too, is selfish - his willingness to keep on sleeping with Paula exposed as horribly sloppy. The point is, it doesn't matter. He and May's Bohemianism may be flawed, but at least they listen to each other. They do so even when they're having sex. It's not embarrassing to watch them go up to Bobby's spare room and hump. After the noise of London, and Bobby and Paula's train-wreck lives, it comes as an extraordinary, almost physical relief to witness accord.

Naturally, the performances are crucial. If there's a God (and He's a film buff), Reid will win a Best Actress Oscar for laying herself so bare. Craig, too, should be rewarded for his supple supporting role. Ditto the cinematographer Alwin Küchler (of Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar fame). His loving take on tangled limbs plays like a Lucien Freud canvas in motion.

Does The Mother, then, represent a new vision of romance - part of a radical salute to the old getting jiggy? In the recent art-house hit Japon, an old peasant woman embarks on a sticky affair with her city-bred tenant. More obviously, there's Calendar Girls, in which the over-fifties get to strip and make a noise.

But let's not oversell this revolution. I suspect that, where Brit-coms are concerned, any old bodies can be displayed, so long as they win money and fame at the end. Just as cravenly, when it comes to cult classics, we seem able to cope only if both parties aren't decrepit. It's rightly seen as sexist that so many aged actors are paired off with young girls, but it cuts both ways. Marlon Brando has Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris; Ruth Gordon has Bud Cort in Harold and Maude; Anne Bancroft has Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. And Reid, here, has Craig, who is not only young, but (in tune with our Sex and the City times) also tall, toned and tanned. Her one encounter with someone her own age is nightmarish - akin to being molested by a flailing, gummy corpse. At the cinema, old plus old still equals death.

Still more problematic is The Mother's final third. Once the children find out about the affair, Michell lets the atmosphere turn hysterical, offering up a run of stagy set-pieces which barge into each other rather than flow. Paula, for all Bradshaw's efforts, remains nothing more than that stock sitcom character: the needy, New Age narcissist. She rants and raves, and her noisy antics break our connection with May.

Watching these final scenes, you wonder why Paula gets so much screen time, while brother Bobby remains pretty much a blank. Last year, Kureishi published a short story called "Goodbye, Mother", featuring a widow rather like May - fuelled by a lust she hopes travel will cure ("I might meet a young man! I'm a game old bird in me old age!"). The big difference is that, in the story, it's her son who rails against her ("'Fuck you,' he told his mother. 'Fuck off.'"). There's even a reference to DH Lawrence's het up Sons and Lovers.

Maybe, when writing The Mother, Kureishi wanted to distance himself from his story's Oedipal rage. Whatever the reason, Paula fails as a substitute mouthpiece. And Bobby, the genial Mr In-between, is ultimately ludicrous. "How did you become so cold?" asks May. To which he murmurs back, "How did you become so hot?" "Christ, son," you half expect her to yell, "how did you become such a knob-head?"

Yet somehow The Mother survives, because our belief in May and Darren is so strong. The unmaternal mother and the bogus rolling stone... they may not be good people, but they do have heft. During May's wanderings through the Tate, we see various sculptures that have endured. It's my hunch that - a hundred years from now - these two grimy, mismatched figures will still make punters want to reach out and touch.