In Praise of Older Woman
With 'The Mother,' Two Brits Put A New Accent on Sexagenarian
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page N01
On the rare occasions when Hollywood shows us romance between old and young, the rules are uncompromising: Only the men can be sexagenarians. The women must be youthful and physically palatable to a younger audience. When an older woman does seduce a younger man, as in "The Graduate," she's portrayed as a predator or scheming seductress.
So when a woman in her sixties jumps into bed with a handsome thirty-something man -- as in "The Mother" -- the film could only be . . . foreign.
Which is where a jovial, peppy conversation with British filmmaker Roger Michell (director of "Notting Hill") and screenwriter-novelist Hanif Kureishi comes in.
In Washington recently to promote "The Mother," which opens Friday, they make a charming, colorful team. Michell, the straightforward director, sits upright in his hotel chair, doing most of the talking, while Kureishi, the innovative writer of such uncompromising novels as "Intimacy" (which Patrice Chereau adapted into a sexually frank movie) and screenplays such as "My Beautiful Laundrette," reclines on the sofa, interjecting comments. And puffing smokes.
"I like Michie," Kureishi says.
"I feel sometimes like we're the odd couple," says Michell.
They are here to spread the word: "The Mother" isn't about sexual titillation so much as about freedom.
"It's about a woman who refuses the position that's been assigned to her," says Kureishi. "Assigned to her by society and her family."
In the film, May (Anne Reid) has just lost her husband of three decades. Her married son, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh), and single-mom daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), as well as their various children, assume Grandma is about to settle in for a slow, respectable descent into death.
But in this intriguing, disquieting drama, May doesn't follow the program. Not with a handsome stud around like Darren (Daniel Craig), a builder who's not only fixing up a home for May's son but also having an edgy affair with a clearly unhappy Paula.
May takes it upon herself to warn the irresponsible and married Darren off her daughter but is attracted to him herself. They start a highly physical relationship. May revels in it, drawing explicit pictures of their coupling.
"Why is it so odd for an older woman to have sex?" asks Michell. "Why is it an exception and why are we so squeamish about the idea of our mothers doing it? It's really about, you don't want to imagine your parents having sex. It's sort of agony to imagine your mother having sex with someone who's not your father. Or your mother having sex beyond the age when she could create children. What the film reveals is that old women have sexual feelings."
Reid, now 69, told Michell that "the sexual longings she has now for young men are the same feelings she had when she was 30. Where do those feelings go when you get old?" he asks.
Kureishi, who has always been interested in psychology, plays with that question in "The Mother." He conceived of a psychological battle between an older mother and her daughter with a mutual love interest at its core.
"I thought that would be a very interesting, painful conflict," he says.
He sent the completed script to Michell, a longtime friend with whom he made the critically acclaimed TV miniseries "The Buddha of Suburbia." They also worked briefly together at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1970s -- Kureishi as a playwright, Michell as a director.
Michell read "The Mother" and "loved it." While reading it, he remembered seeing a matinee production of Louise Page's play "Salonika" amid an audience full of retired women. In the play, a mother and daughter visit Gallipoli, where the older woman's husband was slain in the famous World War I battle.
At one point, the mother falls asleep on the beach and has a dream. While she dreams, recalls Michell, "out of the sands rises an 18-year-old man, completely naked. At that moment, everyone in the audience went 'Aaah.' It was like the most exquisite sound of old women going 'Aaah' at the same time. And you suddenly realized this huge reservoir of feelings were being released."
"Beauty," says Kureishi. "They were remembering beauty."
The memory led Michell to add a scene to "The Mother" in which May visits the Tate Gallery and encounters youth in this museum full of naked sculptures.
A movie comprising such tender material, Michell concluded, must be made for "as little money as possible. So there was none of that pressure for the film to perform at the box office."
"The lower the budget, the more control you have," says Kureishi.
When Michell made "Changing Lanes" for Paramount, he had to weather an organization full of statistics-driven executives who used market readings to determine the ending for the movie. A film like "The Mother" couldn't withstand corporate meddling like that.
The movie, produced by BBC Films and picked up for American distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, was released last year in the United Kingdom and Europe. Although reviews were "ridiculously good," according to Michell, the film fared better in Europe than in Great Britain.
"It didn't play like 'Gone With the Wind' in England," said Michell. "It's not an easy sell wherever you play it." He attributed the relative lack of success in the U.K. to intense competition for theaters with Hollywood's multiplex fare.
However, both men are satisfied that they created the movie they wanted to make.
"You have to ultimately make the films you really want to make in spite of the dangers that lie ahead," Michell says. It took him five years to get "The Mother" made, from first reading to final distribution.
"You get up in the morning," Kureishi says, "and you say to yourself: I want to do this film. I know that a film about old ladies is not going to do [expletive] at the box office but I want to do it."
And Michell says he's "confident the film will live on. In 10 years' time, people will still want to see this. In DVD."
"Just because you get the big bucks on one movie, you shouldn't assume that the next three movies you make based in West London will make it," says Michell, referring to his success for "Notting Hill."
"You got the Jag, Roger," says Kureishi. The Jaguar, he means, bought from Michell's earnings from "Notting Hill."
"Don't overestimate the Jag," retorts Michell. "Do you know how much my Jag is worth? It's only worth about two grand."
"Really?" asks Kureishi, clearly disappointed. He scrunches back into the sofa.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company