THE MOTHER (2002) Old woman’s sexuality or Thatcher’s Britain?

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.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Ageism, Conferences and comments, Film Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to THE MOTHER (2002) Old woman’s sexuality or Thatcher’s Britain?

  1. Well said! Your conclusion is very funny.. but now you’ve revealed to us that you watch Jeremy Kyle ;-)

  2. Leni says:

    E. Ann Kaplan’s analysis of _The Mother_ might be of interest: “The Unconscious of Age: Performances that Challenge Cultural Norms,” in _Staging Age: The Performance of Age in Theatre, Dance, and Film_.

  3. rinaross says:

    thanks Leni. Will read it at the BFI library after the Xmas hoiidays.
    Best wishes for /xmas and the New Year

  4. rose says:

    I agree. There are a lot of undercurrents going on in relation to older women. An ex of mine always used to call women over 60 ‘old biddies’ – and that though he was 54 rising.

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