The Mother; <br></br>Nói Albinói

The emotional pain, the passion reawakened, the wobbling flesh ...

Since My Beautiful Laundrette, Hanif Kureishi has specialised in making society's dysfunctions crystallise around one unlikely or supposedly improper coupling. In The Mother, he lands May, an elderly, newly bereaved grandmother (Anne Reid) in bed with a strapping, youngish handyman (Daniel Craig). When the truth about their liaison emerges, her adult children are shocked. Curiously, although we haven't been remotely shocked until this point, the minute the family finds out, their reaction starts to affect us too, largely because they've stumbled on her extremely explicit pencil sketches of oral sex.

This joke at the expense of the viewer's self-flattering broadmindedness shows how cleverly The Mother avoids the risks of what, in the hands of other British film-makers, it might easily have become - a life-enhancing, against-the-grain novelty romance. Roger Michell's film is the polar opposite to the smug Calendar Girls, which prided itself on evoking the spectre of female physicality over 50 by primly erasing the faintest shadow of sexuality - a self-censoring tactic the WI surely would have endorsed.

Instead, The Mother is all about sex over 60, and it's fascinated with the whole deal - the rediscovered rapture, the wobbling flesh and the emotional pain besides. But, this being a Kureishi script, it's just as much a film about social attitudes and prejudices, a tableau of the selfishness and rank neurosis of the British bourgeoisie. May comes down to see her family in London with husband Toots (Peter Vaughan, inimitably intense and weighty), but returns alone to find his slippers sitting exactly where she left them: one of The Mother's occasional too obviously poignant art-film images. She returns to London but this time, her children - neurotic Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw) and mobile-addicted Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), with his eternal "wall to wall meetings" - are less happy about this unscheduled visit.

Paula soon finds a use for her mother: she wants May to spy on Darren, the amiable handyman who's working on Bobby's parquet flooring, and with whom Paula is having a turbulent affair (everyone in this film, typically for Kureishi families, is perpetually "in turmoil", like emotionally untidy infants). But May finds herself taking more than a friendly interest in Darren, fondly watching his bare back straining over the workbench; the moment comes when she asks him, "Would you come to the spare room with me? Would you?" Reid's delivery of this line - tender, girlishly vulnerable - is one of the miraculous human touches that make The Mother more than a provocative conceit. The Mother is remarkable not just because of its taboo subject, but because its central duo is played with such sparkle and finesse, and attention to mutual need and exploitation. Reid, best known from Coronation Street and Dinnerladies, is largely responsible for the emotional complexity; her performance is bold not just in a superficial how-did-she-have-the-nerve way, but in its ability to convey the emotional conflict of a woman who's suddenly rediscovered her libido, her body, her appetite for the noise of the world. May's complexity is such that when she asks Darren, "What do you want, darling? Tell me...", we realise just from Reid's delivery that May has become as much his mother as her children's, and that it's as a mother that she's bound to suffer. But the film is not remotely sentimental: it's clever enough to manipulate our sympathies in such a way that we forget that May is doing something deeply questionable in poaching her daughter's lover.

Daniel Craig is excellent too, playing down his usual wolfishness as a charming man who's much more on the skids, emotionally and psychologically, than we initially realise; while Cathryn Bradshaw makes a rivetingly uncomfortable mark as the self-obsessed, psychobabble-bound Paula, even if the character sometimes comes dangerously close to being an Ab Fab embodiment of metropolitan angst. One problem with the film is that Kureishi's dyspeptic view of society can't let anyone off the hook for long, and the terms of reference sometimes look too familiar: Bobby and his wife particularly seem like superficially updated versions of the London lifestyle-victims that Kureishi has been guying since the Eighties. If you look at The Mother as a Roger Michell film, however, you see them as a sort of corrective to his own characters: nightmare counterparts to Hugh Grant's cosy dinner-party chums in Michell's Notting Hill.

Michell, who also directed Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia for TV, approaches the story with bracingly cool detachment. The film is shot with flawless poise by Alwin Kuchler, even though it occasionally strains after what you might call the Belgian art-house look - the still of blue-grey bedrooms on a weekday afternoon, net curtains decorously blowing. Even so, this is a real film, with both emotional warmth and a moral chill: minor key, a vignette, but along with Young Adam, one of this year's British films to be reckoned with. It's also the first film, to my knowledge, to extract a telling metaphor of isolation from the shiny capsules of the London Eye.

Dagur Kari's Nói Albinói is the sort of low-key small-town comedy that could easily be set in some corner of Utah or Idaho, if the weather weren't so picturesquely bleak. The hero of this Icelandic slacker saga is Nói (Thomas Lemarquis), not actually albino as the title suggests, but a bald, gangling, manic boy of indeterminate age (supposedly 17), smart-mouthed and defiantly dreaming of Hawaii. Holden Caulfield in a cold climate, he'd stick out a mile anywhere, even up a snowbound fjord populated by whimsical depressives. Nói lives with his shotgun-toting grandmother, and has a boozy Elvis-worshipping dad and a doleful mentor, the local bookseller who quotes Kierkegaard at him: "Hang yourself, you'll regret it. Don't hang yourself, you'll regret it." The reason Nói doesn't hang himself is Iris from the local gas station, played by Elin Hansdotter, the sort of quizzical beauty that could melt pack ice.

As sullen northern humorists go, young director Kari is too restlessly upbeat to be the new Aki Kaurismäki, as some have dubbed him. For a start, he can't resist a sight gag, and will go way out on a limb for absurdist laughs. But Nói Albinói is at its best when following its own slippery melancholic path; it's like a hipper, woebegone version of My Life as a Dog, with a touch of vintage Bill Forsyth wryness about the school scenes.

The poetically shot landscape plays its part too: just when things threaten to get cosy, Kari hits us with an outrageously cavalier finale, as if suddenly realising that this might be his one shot at success and that it's time to go for broke. At once sweet and glum, hip and old-fashioned, Nói Albinói has the feel of a one-off oddity, though it shows a freshness and invention that could carry Kari through an interesting career. If you only see one depressive Nordic teenage romantic comedy this winter...

j.romney@independent.co.uk

Comments