A Mother Who Dared: Hanif Kureishi’s Scarlet ‘M’

Roger Michell’s The Mother , from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, emerges as one of the best pictures of the year, as well as one of the most deceptive, in that it’s not at all as shocking or sordid as its plot makes it seem. The mere mention of the premise-a grandmother having sex with her daughter’s boyfriend-automatically evokes grotesque images of cradle-snatching. Even the portentous title of the movie conspires to place a scarlet “M” on the brow of the misbehaving mater.

But to begin with, the grandmother in question, May (Anne Reid), looks not at all ancient, and the daughter’s boyfriend, Darren (Daniel Craig), doesn’t look all that young and unspoiled. In fact, he is a married man with an autistic child and is at least in his late 30’s. Then again, May’s wronged daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), is herself a single mother who sets her own betrayal in motion by asking her mother to find out how deeply Darren is committed to her. In other words, is he ready to abandon his wife and autistic child for Paula, “the other woman”?

At the same moment, May loses her elderly husband, Toots (Peter Vaughan), to heart failure in the midst of a family reunion attended by their son, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), his spendthrift wife, Helen (Anna Wilson-Jones), as well as Paula and a horde of howling grandchildren. The suddenly widowed May is thus unusually lonely and emotionally vulnerable amid all the tumult. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea for Paula to induce her mother to confront Darren on such a delicate matter.

Actually, dear reader, I’ve started my review the wrong way around, since I wanted to disinfect your expectations of the slightest stains of the unsavory. Before I saw this movie, I was anticipating something grim and grayish, something akin to David Mackenzie’s Young Adam . Instead, I was treated to a feast of bright, joyous colors in Mr. Michell’s Christmas-tree-like mise en scène , seemingly at odds with the story’s taboo-shattering sexual intrigue.

In auteurist terms, therefore, Mr. Michell’s comically ironic direction operates in creative tension with Mr. Kureishi’s somber character studies, described aptly in Stephen Holden’s perceptive Times review (in the May 28, 2004, issue) as “Chekhovian”-an adjective that can be defined as “nobody’s to blame that everybody’s suffering.”

The first time we see May, she’s in her suburban home, patiently helping her grumbling husband out of his bedroom slippers into footwear more appropriate for traveling. After May and Toots have closed the front door behind them, the camera lingers behind to gaze pointedly at the brightly patterned bedroom slippers, as if to summarize a marriage that has atrophied into stay-at-home monotony. May is very subdued on the train trip to London, and when the couple is welcomed into their son’s spacious but lightly furnished house, May slips into the background as Toots hugs and hogs all the grandchildren.

But all is not well with Toots, and after a few warning signs to the audience, he collapses of a heart attack and dies. May cannot bear to return to her suburban tomb and finagles a way to remain in London-by agreeing to serve as an informal baby-sitter for her single daughter, Paula.

I must confess I was often confused as to which home the characters were in-Paula or Bobby’s?-though Darren, the bearded bone of contention between mother and daughter, is generally seen working in Bobby’s house (he’s been hired to add a conservatory even though, as it turns out, Bobby is almost ruinously overextended financially). But all of this is just background noise to the spiritual awakening of May. As she walks around London, she discovers possibilities in life that she’d never imagined in her prior service as a wife and mother, roles in which she neither excelled nor even qualified as competent-something she freely admits, to herself and others, with a disarming frankness.

The deft manner in which Mr. Kureishi enables the audience to get this information via May’s confessional for Paula’s writing-class assignment almost conceals its impact. The problem is that movies have conditioned us for decades to insist on a clear line of responsibility between parents and children, depending on whom we designate as the protagonist. On this basis, the audience chooses which generation to root for at the outset and interprets the action accordingly.

Hence, when Paula blames her still-grieving mother for never having been supportive of any of her failed career choices, we’d be tempted to find Paula whiny and self-pitying simply because the movie is supposed to be about the mother. What is subtle about this film is that Paula is whiny and right at the same time. May hasn’t been a supportive mother because she has never cared enough to be one. That is why she never hesitates to sleep with her daughter’s lover: What is a daughter’s happiness worth weighed against May’s dread that no man’s hands will ever touch her body again until it’s presented to the undertaker? This isn’t the kind of brutally existential reasoning that movies have conditioned us to expect from onscreen mothers.

One of the funniest and yet darkest scenes in the movie explodes with Paula’s accidental discovery of May’s extensive sketches of Darren and herself au naturel -including some in flagrante delicto . On the one hand, the sketches confirm May’s rediscovery of some long-neglected talents. On the other, they reflect her casual arrogance in the pursuit of her self-fulfillment. Still, when Paula angrily announces that she’s going to haul off and sock her mother, May stands stoically still, knowing she deserves the blow and the shiner that goes with it. The effect is strangely unsatisfying, both for them and for us. Where is the understanding leading to reconciliation? It is nowhere to be found.

For a time, May is reduced to groveling before her young lover in a vain effort to persuade him to accompany her to culturally exciting places. Some reviewers lost sympathy for her right at this point, and the stage seemed to be set for May, in her abject humiliation, to take her own life. But this woman is made of sterner stuff than that: She embarks on a voyage to the outside world that she’s always longed to explore, striking a heroically solitary note.

The Mother , therefore, is ultimately not about May’s aging body striving to play the game of love with Father Time; rather, it’s about her eternally youthful spirit, as reflected in her wondrously inquisitive eyes, looking to expand her horizons in the little time she has left. Even when she reluctantly succumbs to the clumsy advances of an elderly admirer, and later writhes about in self-loathing, she’s hardening her soul for her oncoming journey of adventurous solitude. Anne Reid’s magnificent portrayal of the indomitable May has been insufficiently appreciated both here and in England. She is nothing short of uncanny.

Dude, Where’s My Antlers?

The Story of the Weeping Camel was written and directed by Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa. Mr. Falorni and Ms. Davaa are an unlikely duo for this project; he’s Italian, and she grew up in Mongolia. They met when they were both students at film school in Munich, and The Story of the Weeping Camel was Mr. Falorni’s graduation film. But it was Ms. Davaa who persuaded him to film the project in far-off, remote Mongolia in the first place. She was inspired by a movie she’d seen as a child describing an ancient musical ritual involving camels-particularly one mother camel who rejected her colt when it came seeking her nurturing and nourishing milk. (The old camel movie, and the new one it inspired, could’ve both been entitled The Mother -bad mothers can be found in the animal kingdom as well as among humans.)

At the very least, this is a work that should forever discredit the jocular definition of a camel (a horse designed by committee). Apart from the fact that camels can actually outrun horses, camels are even bigger hams than horses whenever a camera is in the vicinity.

The film begins with a lovely story told by a contemporary camel herder in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. As he gathers wood to feed the stove fires in the tents of the nomads, he speaks directly to the camera (as if he were on some sort of celestial nature program) and tells us that, very long ago, the first camel may have had antlers. This was before the day that a rogue deer (doubtless one of Bambi’s ancestors) came along and asked the camel to lend him his antlers so the deer could make a big splash at a party he was attending that night. The camel lent the deer his antlers and then waited, day after day and night after night, for the deer to return them. So when you now see a camel intently scanning the horizon, it’s because he’s still waiting for his antlers to be returned. Cut to camel scanning the horizon with those mournful eyes. Bingo!

Ms. Davaa and Mr. Falorni have stated that they were profoundly influenced by the early documentaries of Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951), particularly Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). With Flaherty in mind, the two filmmakers set out to make what they designated as a “narrative documentary”-one that “uses feature film elements and drama techniques while at the same time fall[ing] within the boundaries of the traditional documentary.”

Apropos of the never-ending hassles over film categories: Several years ago, I lobbied successfully (much to my surprise) the New York Film Critics Circle to change the label of the documentary category to “nonfiction” to accommodate new liberties taken with the genre by mavericks like Errol Morris and Michael Moore. There was, I argued, something stodgy, musty, old-fashioned and off-putting to moviegoers about the term “documentary,” which was virtually invented and propagated as a cinematic religion by the Scottish filmmaker, critic and social activist John Grierson (1898-1972) throughout the English-speaking world.

The point I wish to make with this lengthy digression is that The Story of the Weeping Camel is, in my mind, a more traditional documentary in the exotic Flaherty mode than a wildly maverick nonfiction foray of shock and outrage. You have to love all the people and animals you encounter in this film, but too much of the time-and despite all its generous humanism-the pacing is much too slow for the most rigorous demands of cinematic art. Ah, but the camels live in a world of their own, far beyond the exigencies of metaphor, in an unearthly sector of existence that forces the viewer to confront his or her oncoming mortality as a mystical part of the life-cycle. I haven’t been this moved by the ineffable wisdom conveyed in the eyes of beasts since Robert Bresson’s transcendent Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). In one memorable sequence, Bresson counterposed the eloquent eyes of the eponymous donkey in a circus with those of a monkey, a lion, a bear and an elephant. Wonderful.

A Mother Who Dared: Hanif Kureishi’s Scarlet ‘M’