Sunday 17 November 2019

Mother! movie review: Darren Aronofdky's strange drama starts brilliantly then goes bananas


Mad world: Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in mother! Photo: Paramount Pictures
Mad world: Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in mother! Photo: Paramount Pictures
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

What to say about mother!? Darren Aronofsky's film title comes replete with lower case 'm' and exclamation mark, which should warn you that this is going to be tricksy stuff. With Aronofsky, of course, it always is: his films take risks, and are as likely to infuriate (The Fountain, Noah) as delight (The Wrestler, Black Swan). What they will never do, however, is bore you, and the first 90 minutes or so of this strange and high-blown film are riveting in the extreme.

Jennifer Lawrence, the Hollywood actor of the moment and Aronofsky's current partner, plays a nameless young woman who is doomed to suffer. Things look pretty good for her to start with, however: she lives in a sprawling, secluded country home she's painstakingly renovating. While she moves from room to room, painting, plastering and hammering in floorboards, her handsome, older husband (Javier Bardem) sits in his study with furrowed brow, his pen hovering over an empty page.

He's a poet, seems to be suffering from long-term writer's block, and gets testy when his beautiful young wife has the bad manners to mention it. But they seem happy and blissfully in love until someone comes knocking late one night. A gaunt, ill-looking stranger (Ed Harris) presents himself, initially claiming he thought the place was a guest house. But he later admits he's "a big fan" of the writer's work.

To the young woman's horror, the poet asks the stranger to stay, and things get even more unpleasant when the stranger's wife (a wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up and starts strolling around the house like she owns it. The woman is rude, seems to have no concept of boundaries and constantly challenges the young woman's authority. She's miserable, and struggling to make sense of it all, but the poet is delighted by this unexpected stimulus and has started writing again. Dismay turns to horror when the intrusive couple's two sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up and start acting out their sibling rivalries. Then a bereavement fills the house with obnoxious mourners, who view the writer with a strange reverence. Might he be some kind of deity? His histrionic acolytes seem to think so, and just when the poor girl thinks things can't get any worse, they do.

The breathless intensity that characterises all Aronofsky's work is present in mother! from the start. His cameras race around the rickety house in pursuit of Lawrence, who always seems a step or two behind the action. Who is this mystery caller? Why is his wife such a harpy? And why does her affable but quietly conceited husband attract such mindless adulation? As she wonders, so do we, and don't expect any pat answers.

The age difference between the two lead characters has prompted some to imagine that Aronofsky is obliquely exploring his relationship to Lawrence, but this seems unlikely given the fact that they met after the script was written. And while a storyline involving a possible pregnancy and a fought-over child may have roots in the director's earlier life experience, such speculation is pointless, and banal.

It's more interesting, but equally pointless, to guess what in God's name the film-maker is saying overall. Is mother! a dire warning about environmental catastrophe? Is Javier Bardem's character God? One particularly disturbing incident may be a satirical take on the Catholic idea of transubstantiation, and the chaos of the film's last hour could be indictment of human nature's intractable venality.

Most of all, though, that frantic finale feels to me like evidence of a film-maker losing sight of what he wants to say. Lawrence is brilliant and suffers soulfully like a latter-day Joan of Arc, but the film's dramatic tension flies out the door as soon as Aronofsky starts flinging actors and ideas into mother!'s frantic and nonsensical conclusion, which felt a bit like one of those pie-throwing fights at the end of a Marx brothers movie.

mother! (18, 121mins) ★★★

Films coming soon...

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Channing Tatum, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore); Maze (Tom Vaughan-Lowlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann); Borg/McEnroe (Shia LaBoeuf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgard).

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