This artsy, if sour adaptation Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical contains no characters with which to empathise.
Art-film stalwart Gerald Fox’s dramatic adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novel, 'Mother's Milk', takes a part-satirical look at domestic disenchantment with its provocative tale of familial feuding. The film chronicles the mid-life crisis of Patrick Melrose (Jack Davenport) as his aged, battle-axe mother, Eleanor (Margaret Tyzack), decides to leave her luxurious French home to the charming but dubious New Age, rogue Seamus (Adrian Dunbar).
Set amid the tranquil beauty of Provence, referred to in the film as a 'magical land', the serene surroundings complete with their inescapable, endless sunshine provide an incongruous and thought-provoking setting for the film’s thematic discussions of marital discord and ancestral chaos.
Though the film’s central conflict plays second fiddle to a character study of the frustrated and damaged Patrick. Jack Davenport gives a convincingly loathsome performance as the wholly unlikable, self-serving Patrick as he descends into adultery and alcoholism. Intensified by his mother’s illness, the battle for his perceived inheritance and envy of his new born son frames Patrick as an alienated figure, increasingly isolated from his wife, Mary (Annabel Mullion), and plagued by sexual longings which haunt his daily life in the form of surreal, fantastical dream sequences.
The narrative is told through the three contrasting viewpoints of Patrick, Mary and most interestingly, their young son Robert whose painful transition from infancy to childhood is captured through the sibling rivalry he feels for new baby brother Thomas. The film dares to question the fulfilment of the role of the mother, presenting a frequently joyless experience of motherhood, embodied in the character of the neglected Mary who is frank and honest about her feelings of emptiness.
A disconnected voiceover (c/o Tom Hollander) acts as the film’s narrative guide, which offers commentary on the animalistic traits of human nature and making spry observations that would seem perfectly at home in a nature documentary. Fox employs a handheld camera to produce matching fly-on-the-wall style visuals, providing an intimate realism that further enhances the film’s observational viewpoint.
Yet, the film’s lack of redeeming characters is its fundamental flaw. Fox presents a host of detestable, unsympathetic and garish caricatures of the upper middle class, resulting in a complete lack of empathy for anyone on screen. Even cherub-faced Robert struggles to evoke a grain of sympathy in his brattish bid for attention.
This purportedly moving, 'deeply painful' account of separation, loneliness, and death constantly keeps the audience at arms’ length, with imagined tender moments including a dying mother’s goodbye to her son packing little in the way of an emotional punch.
As Mary leaves this hypothetical paradise for what could be the last time, the narrator informs us that she casts a cold eye over the garden, the house and the view. The viewer cannot help but share Mary’s vision with welcome relief.
Is Gerald Fox’s artistic adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s prize winning novel something we should be excited about?
An absence of redeemable characters sours Mother’s Milk.
A cold and confrontational drama, as frosty as its cast of upper-middle class misfits.