Mother courage

No two mothers are alike.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion in such films as Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” Todd Field’s “Little Children” and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” in which it’s not just enough to dramatize mothers and mother figures in crisis. No, the very subject and meaning of motherhood bubbles to the surface of these movies in ways both complex and illuminating.

This is the case with other films in the awards season discussion, such as “Running With Scissors,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Notes on a Scandal,” where moms are either simultaneously narcissistic and suffocating (Annette Bening in “Scissors”), marginalized in a unit where the child’s desires are paramount (Toni Collette in “Sunshine”) or fully capable yet self-destructive (Cate Blanchett in “Scandal”).

One film that’s somehow been missed in the awards chatter, Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl,” ponders a whole spectrum of motherhood, from the point of view of a single mom reduced to prostitution to that of a mother coping with her daughter’s murder.

“It’s a huge subject, really,” says Peter Morgan, the screenwriter behind “The Queen,” “since it touches on the fundamental source of our existence, where we came from, our nurturing, love itself.”

Classic Hollywood rarely veered from the stance of extolling the mother, perhaps reaching its apotheosis in the Oscar-winning “Mrs. Miniver,” in which Greer Garson went beyond mere matriarch to embody British resolve in the face of the Nazi blitz during WWII.

The mother of all mother movies isn’t from Hollywood, however, but from Argentina and master filmmaker Adolfo Aristarain, whose 2004 film “Roma” dramatizes with exquisite tenderness and depth the price a widowed mother (Susu Pecoraro) pays for the unconditional love she has for her only son. In it, Aristarain offers tribute to John Ford’s warmth for motherhood when characters attend a retrospective screening of Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and witness Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad assure Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), “I’ll be there.”

Such a tradition of loving portrayals is considerably shaded if not outright darkened in “Volver” and “Little Children,” and cast in a national light in “The Queen.”

And yet, as Almodovar conceived his dedicated if somewhat stressed-out mother Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) for “Volver,” a love of a certain brand of woman and mother inspired the film. Growing up in the remote Spanish flatlands of La Mancha where much of “Volver” is set, the writer-director says, “I was around women all the time — my mother and the rest of the neighborhood — and really the movie just became a kind of tribute to all of them.

“When you are an adult you can see things in a more fair, more balanced way. Now I’m fascinated by these women and their struggles. They were like a celebration of life. I remember these mothers and women as very strong, very funny, and at the same time they represent the origins of fiction, because they told so many stories: about tragedies, about awful things that happened there, about ghosts.”

Although Raimunda lives in Madrid, juggling a job while raising a family, her roots are in La Mancha, and it’s the supposed ghost of her own mother (Carmen Maura) that draws her back to her past. At the same time, Raimunda is faced with the near-impossible task of covering up the killing of her boorish, deadbeat husband by her daughter.

The film’s La Mancha, notes Almodovar, “is absolutely matriarchal, in spite of being (in) a very macho region. The truth is that the man’s voice is supposed to be the voice of power, but in the shadows are the women, who are really in control of the household and everything else. That I remember very well, since I was a child.”

Raimunda’s character, though, is rooted not only in Almodovar’s past, but in the movies: “For the mother, I wanted something like an Italian mother in the movies of the ’50s, like Anna Magnani. Physically, for Penelope, she was better at that style than anyone that I knew. Because they were housewives, very beautiful, very strong, but at the same time physically attractive. And stylistically, everything started to fit. It’s not obvious at first, but (Cruz) can be a force of nature. At the same time, she has something that can be extremely vulnerable.”

As a mother, Kate Winslet’s Sarah Pierce in “Little Children” is at once so removed from her own daughter and yet aware of all that’s around her in her well-kept suburban neighborhood that she makes us distrust our own assumptions of what motherhood should be.

Thus, Field observes, the initial comments from New Line execs that Sarah wasn’t “likable.” When he mentioned this to Winslet, Field says, “She just laughed and laughed and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ “

Field believes this concern is quite beside the point. “It’s not even that (Sarah) is dislikable,” he explains. “It’s about a selective viewing of things we do as parents. We’ve all experienced times when we’ve been dismissive of our children; when (they) wish that they could share something with us and we brush them off. It’s just human, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that character at all.”

One of the keys to “Little Children,” Field notes, is the story’s paradoxical tone, and how it works against any conventional viewer attachment to Winslet as a mother figure, while also illustrating the role’s vexing challenges: “(Kate) understood that this was framed as satirical melodrama, and so this character is sometimes wise and very serious and vulnerable, and at other times she’s vain and selfish and completely foolish.”

These contradictions may also sum up the U.K.’s own “mother,” Queen Elizabeth II, at least as she’s characterized by Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” In Britain, Morgan says, “She’s everybody’s double mother. The queen is the most constant presence in British lives: She’s on every bank note, she’s on our stamps, she’s been an ever-present, unchanging icon in my life to a degree only my own mother has been. So you can see that the queen in the film involves an absolute Freudian mess.”

Morgan’s script dramatizes the pressure-filled days following the death of Princess Diana in Paris, when newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) found himself trying to figure out the best way to pry the icy royals out of their cocoon of self-denial to attend to a nation in mourning, while the queen herself comes to realize the extent to which the world has changed.

“I think that we grow close to Elizabeth during the film,” says Morgan, “precisely for the reasons that we’re sympathetic to Diana. This queen is cynical, cold, off-putting to Blair, out of touch, uncooperative and never makes a show of contrition. It’s pretty unappealing behavior on the whole. Yet we end up loving her because we can see her hurting inside, and knowing that she’s lost, because she realizes that she’s entered a new world on a raft in a big churning river.”

It’s why Morgan, when asked for his favorite line in his script, mentions the scene where Elizabeth is climbing a staircase to go to the bedroom of the Queen Mother: “As she’s walking, she utters the word ‘Mummy?’ in this tiny voice. The effect is to give this sense of a vulnerable woman who needed her mother. For me, what’s equally touching is how the queen realizes her own shortcomings as a mother when discussing how gentle Diana had been with her children. And realizing how difficult it is to be non-emotional.”

Yet Morgan laments the rejection of the stoic manner that Elizabeth represents for her generation of motherhood. “The truth is that I wrote ‘The Queen’ in response to the wildly self-absorbed, narcissistic values that my generation has embraced. So it’s partly a love letter to the values of my mother’s stoical generation. I think that throughout the film, there’s a tinge of melancholy on my part to the loss of that value system, and that sense of motherhood.”

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