Daniel Craig, Anne Reid and the affair that broke cinema’s oldest taboo
Examine the average age gap between James Bond and his love interests, and it’s the pattern that’s the problem. Typically, and with no one raising so much as a campy eyebrow, he’s old enough to be their father. This was most conspicuous in the case of the oldest offender, Roger Moore. Age gap police klaxon: Moore was 53 opposite 24-year-old Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only, and 57 for his swansong, A View to a Kill, opposite a 29-year-old Tanya Roberts.
“It’s so wrong and so typically male,” David Hare was forced to agree yesterday about the continuing normalisation of this casting practice, and the fact that it tends to go in one direction only. (Just ask Monica Bellucci what fates await the marginally older women in Bond’s life.) Even in No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s ongoing romance with Léa Seydoux makes, to my recall, zero mention of the 17 years that separate them: for Bond, this is simply business as usual, barely worth batting an eyelid about.
Flip the genders, and suddenly everyone sits up in horror. This was the premise of The Mother, a neglected, BBC-funded drama written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by the late Roger Michell, which Craig made in 2003, three years before his first Bond stint.
Playing a burly carpenter called Darren, Craig was 34 at the time – 32 years younger than the film’s leading lady, Anne Reid, who was 66. The role of May, a widowed grandmother who has a passionate fling with the handyman her daughter is seeing, remains the finest part of Reid’s career, which she credits for every subsequent success. “It knocked on the head all those offers of playing ladies in the kitchen making sandwiches,” she has admitted.
The crucial thing underlying The Mother is that no one seems able to ignore a May-December heterosexual coupling when the older party is a woman – in a touch of nudging sarcasm from Kureishi, actually a woman called May. The very fact of the film’s controversy serves to expose our double standards, as does the shock of May’s conventional, uptight family when the affair comes to light. (The equivalent scenario with an older man is so much more common it’s more likely to be greeted with mere eye-rolls, on screen or off.)
For these reasons, it’s particularly hard to berate Craig for the institutional sexism of Bond, and not just because of this one film levelling the score. Through this earlier phase of his career, he was quite commonly cast as a younger object of other people’s sexual attentions. In John Maybury’s Love is the Devil (1998) he played a small-time thief who became the toyboy of the artist Francis Bacon, as played by Derek Jacobi (who’s 29 years Craig’s senior).
Because cinema so very rarely privileges the sex drives of women over 40, let alone 65, Reid was extremely nervous about shooting The Mother’s sex scenes. “The night before”, she said on Desert Island Discs, “I had a lot of drink on my own in the flat and I stripped and I stood in front of a mirror and thought, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to have to show this’.”
“She was terrified,” Craig remembered. “We were both kind of terrified in a way. We just sort of just talked it through, until we were kind of absolutely at a point where you know – we do it, we're going to go get on with it now, let's go.”
“She was wonderfully up for the film,” Michell said at the time of release. “But she found it difficult. She found the way we worked bewildering to begin with. And she did find the prospect of the sex scenes very scary, and I completely sympathise with that. I feel in a way that she is, in an odd way, almost transformed by the making of the film in the way that her character was.”
Somewhat amazingly, given the industry’s typical disempowering of older women, Reid was given casting approval, and turned down one unidentified actor put forward to play Darren, the oft-shirtless builder who catches May’s eye. Unfamiliar at the time with Craig’s name when Michell suggested him instead, Reid was sent a tape of one of his films. By her account, she was on the phone demanding he be cast within 15 seconds.
Those sex scenes were always going to be risqué. Without being especially graphic, they went well beyond missionary. “I didn’t want everyone tittering,” Reid said. “When Daniel and I got into bed together, I just looked at him and said: ‘I hope this isn’t going to look like Tom Cruise and Thora Hird.’”
You doubt Sean Connery – when he was two years older than Reid – had any such worries when he did all the canoodling in Entrapment (1999) with Catherine Zeta-Jones (age gap: 39 years), in what has to count as the ne plus ultra of shruggable A-list match-making across a double-generation abyss.
The point of Entrapment, a glossy heist flick, is for us not particularly to notice or care. The point of The Mother is to think in a decidedly more adult way about the relationship between ageing and desire, and also the gender imbalance, ingrained over centuries, which makes this particular love story some kind of taboo.
Think about it we do. But the film can’t help but construe May and Darren’s relationship as a problem – one so horrifying to her unhappy daughter (Cathryn Bradshaw) and settled, unfeeling son (Steven Mackintosh) that it all breaks apart, causing the film to explode abruptly into melodrama.
This prompted a largely negative, two-star review on release from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who conceded Reid’s exceptional work, and the film’s forthrightness about sex, but regretted the near-obligatory backslide into shouting and absurdity. (Brought to boiling point by the family crisis, Craig’s Darren starts snorting coke and shoves a Black and Decker Workmate through a window, in a scene Bradshaw singled out for especial mockery.)
The more daring conclusion to The Mother, perhaps, would have been a durable relationship kept going at the end between Reid and Craig’s characters, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Somehow, despite all the sensitivity that otherwise surrounds May’s characterisation, this is verboten.
It happens in cinema again and again – pair an older woman with a younger man, and it’s presented as something alien to the natural law, in some rigid final analysis that’s almost never challenged. At least, in Paul McGuigan’s wonderful Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017), what finally intervenes is the tragedy of Gloria Grahame’s death before her time, rather than any form of icy social disapproval.
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell have such a special rapport in that film, and in fact, the age gap in itself (32 years) isn’t the problem between them as a screen couple in any decisive way, but the cancer Grahame kept secret. The Mother certainly deserves credit as a table-turning anomaly and brave opportunity for Reid, even if the script was marred by Kureishi’s typical chilly pessimism. McGuigan’s picture was a warm step forward. In the most romantic passages between Bening and Bell, like Bond, they seemed to have all the time in the world.