I heard a lot of very good things about this film and that I would give it a go. First and foremost, the cast are outstanding and make the film feel very rounded and palpable, when it is in danger of feeling flat. It was almost marketed as a cheeky romp, ooh, look at that, a granny having sex, when really it is anything but.
Stereotypical grandma May (played by Dinnerladies Anne Reid) and her husband Toots go to visit their children in London. Son Bobby is a busy businessman with a bossy harridan wife and two irritating children. Toots seems significantly older than May, and she fulfils more a carer role than a wifely role. Bobby is currently having a conservatory built on his house by dodgy builder Darren, played by Daniel Craig. May and Toots other daughter Paula lives alone with her son nearby, and seems to spend most of her time waist deep in red wine, blaming all of the problems in her life on anyone except herself. She is also having an affair with Darren, who is married.
After dinner at Bobby’s house, Toots dies of a heart attack. Bobby takes May home, but she refuses to stay, saying she isn’t ready for old age or going into a home, and would rather kill herself. She moves in with Bobby and his family, and begins a tentative yet odd friendship with Darren at the behest of Paula, who wants to find out how he really feels about her, and if he is ever really going to leave his wife.
At first, the relationship between Darren and May is extremely touching. He is painted as something of a tortured artist, a working class boy who wants to make good. May is not seen as anyone or anything worthwhile by her family, she is just “Mother”. Darren actually sees her as a human, as a woman who has led a life and has a rare appreciation for art and poetry. Their time together is sweet and heady, but during a drunken pub lunch one day, May tumbles into his chest and then kisses him. Appalled by what she has done, she leaves quickly and apologises. When she sees Darren next, he seems entirely unfazed by her actions, and they begin a sexual relationship. Their first time going to bed together is amazingly sweet and tender, when Darren pulls off his shirt and asks gently “Do you want to touch me? You can”. It seems that Darren is self-sacrificing, and wants to make May feel loved and youthful again. She is drawn to Darren, at first being entirely confused by her daughter’s infatuation with him, and then she clearly begins to understand why she feels that way.
Daniel Craig plays the part extremely well. He is nothing of the usual cold and stern actor he appears to be in many parts, and instead he is all big eyes and fluffy beard and plays the part with a youthful innocence and a cheekiness that makes you see why women of any age would fall gracelessly to his feet. He is really astonishingly charming and sweet.
As time goes on, Paula is loudly falling apart, wanting herself to be this amazing writer with humbling talent, when really there is none. She is vicious to her Mum and makes May feel stupid and worthless. She invites Darren over for dinner, and Paula makes a big show of draping herself all over him, despite him clearly not wanting that. The glances between him and May are painful to watch, as they both have to witness something they don’t want to see. Paula makes no bones about kicking her Mother out of the house so she can jump into bed with Darren.
Paula and Bobby meet at Bobby’s house to discuss what should be done with Mum. Bobby flicks pointlessly through May’s sketchbook and finds her extremely frank drawings of her and Darren in bed together. Bobby is almost completely sure that this is fantasy only, whereas Paula is convinced her Mother is sleeping with her boyfriend. She drags Darren and May and a student of her writing class, cravated and bespectacled Bruce out for dinner, where an angry and morose Darren drinks himself stupid. At the end of the night, Paula then pushes her Mother endlessly to go on a date with ageing lothario Bruce. May goes home with him and then to his flat, and to bed with him. She is clearly disgusted by the acts they perform together, and she leaves for Paula’s home, to find an incoherently drunk Paula burning all of her writing.
During an afternoon together in bed, Paula promised Darren she would give him some money so he could travel. Paula told Darren over their disastrous dinner that Bobby was haemorrhaging money and would need to sell his home, conservatory only half done. A furious Darren arrives at his home, and proceeds to snort an enormous line of cocaine and then teases May to perform oral sex on him. She agrees, but asks him to be tender with her. He loses his temper spectacularly, smashing his own work to pieces and asking for the money, saying that all women are the same.
It is around this time that we realise how far May has sunk. Despite his initial actions, Darren doesn’t really care for May. He slept with her because he wanted to, and originally he did want to help her, but like all the women in his life, he grows bored of her quickly. She sees him as a partner, a lover, someone significant, whereas he is happy to discard her without a backwards thought. Paula confronts May about this, then punches her in the face. May gathers her things together and leaves, with only a solitary wave from Darren and barely a word from her own children. She returns to her tiny cottage, gathers her things and a plane ticket, and we watch her walk off into the distance.
This film is tough on the emotions. At first, I felt so much sympathy for May and Darren, who clearly need each other and the company, as May tells Darren he is much more intelligent and worthy than he considers himself to be, and Darren makes May feel youthful and sexy, something she has never really felt. She tells him about her life, about the stranglehold of domesticity and children, and about how her husband made her isolated and alone. I thought the sex scenes would be hard to watch, as there is quite a high level of nudity, but really they are significant and well done, and Anne Reid makes May seem so coquettish and sweet despite her years. As the film progresses, we see how unstructured and undisciplined Darren is, an alcoholic drug using drifter who, as he says himself “is just making it up and he goes along”. He doesn’t know what he wants from life, from May, from anyone. He is torturing Paula without even meaning to, and let May believe he genuinely cared for her, when it seems really he didn’t at all.
A mother betraying her own daughter is a tough watch for anyone. Anne Reid plays the part so exceptionally well, making us see how helplessly addicted she is to Darren, even when he reveals himself to be much more dangerous than she first thought. I really felt very hollow at the end of the film, with the echoes of Shirley Valentine’s “I’ve allowed myself to lead this little life”, but yet taking such a darker and scarier turn. I feel so much for May, about the fact that she has had a life and yet never really lived it. The cast are really fabulous, and the film is a brilliant if difficult watch.