Those who found Rebecca Daly’s debut, the dreamy and elusive The Other Side of Sleep, will be happy to know that Mammal is altogether easier to slip into. But the welcoming style is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: this terrific slow-burning drama asks tough questions and doesn’t offer any easy answers.
Griffiths plays Margaret, a middle-aged charity shop owner who shuns company. Emotionally numb, when she is contacted by her ex, Matt (McElhatton), with news that their teenage son is missing, she has no reaction, and when the boy is found dead in a canal there’s a flicker of emotion before it’s suppressed again. But despite herself something stirs in Margaret and her instinct to protect is awakened when she finds homeless teen Joe (Keoghan) beaten and semi-conscious near the dumpsters in the alleyway behind her shop. She tends his wounds and offers him a place to stay…
As a character study Mammal probes Margaret but also respects her privacy, expertly balancing what the audience needs to know to understand her and what could be deemed as a rude intrusion. Daly keeps the big details secret as the pain at the heart of Margaret is slowly and achingly teased out. What the viewer is left to guess is that she left Matt when their son was still very young: she’s uncomfortable at the sight of a child at the swimming pool and her distress over her inability to console a crying baby hints at not only guilt but self-hate – Doesn’t every woman want to be a mother? What kind of person is she that doesn’t? But there’s something like a mothering instinct buried inside her: She nurses Joe and, later, she carries her shopping like one would a new born.
Although they have led very different lives, the writer-director (the script is co-written with writing partner Glenn Montgomery) expertly emotionally connects Margaret and Joe. The scar on her tummy, the wound on his hand, and when they both experience separate traumatic events, Daly links them via similar shots in the bath (low, from the back). If water is the running motif Daly muddies its healing power somewhat. Margaret finds perfect solitude under water, she teaches Joe how to swim, and they both seek out showers and baths after distressing episodes. But water too is tied in with the whiff of sexual tension between this would-be mother and son, and its rejuvenating power is tempered by her son’s drowning.
Griffiths, juggling tenderness and deliberate emotional distance, hasn’t been better while Keoghan shows again why he is one of the most exciting acting talents to come out of this country.
Mammal is outstanding and Rebecca Daly a major filmmaker.