The film-maker daughter of a friend of mine challenged me the other day. From agreement over Last Tango in Halifax that we both found a well written TV drama, we slid into disagreement and misunderstanding about The Mother (2002). She liked The Mother and I hated it. Our differences were not resolved and centred around the impression I must have given that I would only accept a ‘positive’ image of the old woman on screen. I would like to correct this impression. It is not the negative image of May that I object to. After all my favourite characters are Tatie Danielle and the murderous Grace in Keeping Mum. It is the misogynist and ageist subtext of the film.
I have always felt that there was a great discrepancy between film reviews and my reactions. My dissertation about Le Chat which compared reviews with a focus group of old women’s reception of this complex and rich film, confirmed my impression that a formal analysis is the only way to disentangle what is on screen from subjective interpretations.
I have not analysed The Mother on this blog but our film group discussed it after it was released in 2003. It was hailed as a brave film breaking the cinematic taboo of showing an older woman having sex with a younger man. Michell’s direction, the cinematography and Anne Reid’s acting were highly praised. I was stunned to find out that I was the only one to have found the film profoundly misogynistic and the older woman character savagely portrayed. The other women appreciated it as the expression that older women do have sexual desire. When we watched it again for the BFI ‘Older Women in Feature Films’ guide (see Resources page for some comments of U3A viewers), opinions did change.
In 2005 the group revisited The Mother for the ‘British Films 1997-2006’ report. By then two of our members had died but others joined us. Below the notes taken at the time.
Pathetic character who is revived by sex with a younger man. She is unloving, unloved and unlovable. She has masochistic tendencies. She accepts her daughter’s physical aggression and humiliates herself in soliciting sex from the young builder. The mother and daughter fight for the same man. The film expresses more the distaste of children to parent’s sexual activity than reveals the sexuality of the older woman. The awkward rather repulsive old man having sex is contrasted with the young man’s sexual knowhow. All the characters, even the children, are selfish and have no redeeming features. The film reflects Thatcher’s Britain. Cinema vérité camera invites us to observe, and the cinematography is superb. The sex scenes were delicately filmed.
What is interesting in this film is the contrast between what in the film is most talked about and what is revealed on close analysis. And the contrast between the stylish cinematography and the despicable narrative. It was admired as a new departure because of the explicit sex scenes between an older woman and a young man.
For our group, the ageism/sexism of this film was evident. It only required us to see the extras on the DVD and hear the producer, writer and producer, talk about the character to have this opinion confirmed. The character is called ‘Granny’ by the three of them. ‘She could be anybody’s Granny” Kevin Loader. She is an ordinary woman you could see in the street, on the other hand she is full of life… She is a dull old person. Hanif Kureishi: “I remembered that Rog had a mother and therefore that mothers theme might be sympathetic to him. It turned out he did indeed have a mother and a sister….” What does this mean? Hasn’t Hanif Kureishi got a mother? What lies behind these words.
Why is an older woman sexual life set in an indifferent unloving ‘dysfunctional’ family? Why is the older woman sexuality in competition with her daughter’s? Why is the older man incapable of intelligent love-making?
I am writing this to point out that in a film culture where the old woman’s sexuality is very rarely represented, to talk about this film in terms of sexual liberation of an older woman without pointing the film’s various other aspects is superficial. Does this film enlighten, give space for thought? Is it ‘true to life’ as some male critics claim. Or in its representation of the shocking behaviour of its main characters is it an upmarket, well written, filmed and acted version of a Jeremy Kyle show?
Another film that deserves a scene by scene analysis.