The coming attractions for "The Mother" make it look like a carefree Lifetime-TV remake of the old Douglas Sirk May-December chestnut "All That Heaven Allows": a 60-something widow (Anne Reid) rediscovers life and lust with a hunk half her age (Daniel Craig) while her grown children sputter with dismay. And if that gets a certain target audience into the theaters, all well and good -- the trailer has done what trailers are meant to do.
But it has also lied. "The Mother" -- the film itself -- is a far more troubling piece of work that addresses the inner life of an unnoticed woman and the damage wrought when she takes it upon herself, at long last, to be noticed. Written by the gifted British novelist-screenwriter Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette") and directed by Roger Michell ("Persuasion," "Notting Hill"), it's an awkward, discomfiting film, at times floridly melodramatic, at others downright gamy, and yet it gets at truths of human behavior that few movies think to touch. I saw it two weeks ago and I haven't stopped turning it over in my mind since.
On the surface, the most unsettling aspect of "The Mother" is its insistence that older people have sex lives -- this in opposition to what commercial movies and TV prefer to tell us. May (Reid) has always been a properly dowdy English wife, but we learn that she has had affairs even before her lovable old husband (Peter Vaughan) passed away. Now that he's gone, so is the moral framework that has propped her up for decades; it's as though Celia Johnson in "Brief Encounter" has finally snapped from all the repression.
Unwilling to remain in her upcountry home -- "If I sit down, I'll never get up again," she says -- May shuttles between the London flats of her married son, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), and her single-mom daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). Neither of them very much likes the old girl; in her passive silences they see only judgment and maternal frigidity.
We see a timid woman whose fingertips are burning with sudden onrushes of desire. May disapproves of Paula's doormat relationship with Darren (Craig), a bearded, insouciant, self-loathing handyman friend of Bobby's, but in trying to dissuade him from leading her daughter on, the mother develops a crush. As if on a dare, he responds. It's not the explicitness of the ensuing bedroom scenes that make you want to look away, it's the terrible urgency. You sense that neither of these people have much time left.
Of course their affair is a dreadful idea, and of course May should know better than to sketch Darren nude and then some, as if she were carrying her garden-club hobbies into her randy new life. The off-kilter fascination of "The Mother" is that it gives us an unreliable heroine who's fully three-dimensional -- Reid gives a fearless performance -- and its sympathies keep shifting around. How much is Darren using May? How much does she want to be used? Is Paula a whiner who blames her mother for her own faults, or does she have a legitimate beef? Is May's reckless self-absorption a new development or is it the adolescent rebellion she should have had 50 years ago? And, really, why can't she have it off with a younger man?
In its final act, "The Mother" goes around the bend with extreme behavior; the characters have all been asking for it, anyway. Michell films his tale with the straight-ahead decorum of a British drama of manners, but he's alert to the emotional potholes and dark humor his characters don't see. Likewise, Jeremy Sams's piano-driven score has a coffee-table prettiness that's disrupted by Gorillaz' hit "Clint Eastwood" lurching in from the wings.
"The Mother," in other words, only looks middlebrow. In reality, it's messy in the way that life is, and with a rare and welcome obstreperousness. "Don't be difficult, mother," says Paula at one point, and you can see the curious jolt of discovery in May's eyes as she looks up and answers, for the first time in her life, "Why not?"
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Roger Michell
Written by: Hanif Kureishi
Starring: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Cathryn Bradshaw, Steven Mackintosh
At: Harvard Square, Embassy Cinema
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: R (sexual content including graphic images of sexuality, language, and drug use)