Film Review – Mother of George
Mother of George
Kierkegaard once said that marriage brings one into fatal connection with custom and tradition, and traditions and customs are like the wind and the weather—they’re altogether incalculable. This might have been a fitting epigraph for Andrew Dosunmu’s new film, Mother of George. While in many ways traditions are beautiful and important and uniting, they are also a double-edged sword: these same traditions in many other ways are stifling and devastating. The traditional Nigerian wedding that opens this film gives us a glimpse of both of these facets. The colors, the music, the energy are all lush and lively and invigorating, but later on in the wedding, when the men are all separated from the women, the men take turns giving the groom pointers on how best to fool around outside the marriage. In another room, all the women are gathered and the bride’s mother-in-law confers blessings of fertility on her and determines the child must be named George. When over a year has passed and the beautiful Adenike (Danai Gurira) has still yet to conceive a child, relations have grown tense between her, her husband Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), and her mother-in-law (Bukky Ajayi). This film chronicles Adenike’s desperate attempts to keep her family happy and to fulfill those traditions being imposed upon her.
Mother of George is a quiet film, perhaps too quiet. It is not a quiet film in that there is not much sound—there are many African rhythms pulsating throughout—but it is a quiet film in that there isn’t much that happens and it takes itself too seriously. There are some all too brief moments of levity, as when we see Adenike in a clothing store skeptical and bemused while looking in a mirror at the revealing shirt her sister-in-law has just advised her to purchase, or when we see her listening to modern music through a set of large headphones while a smile creeps across her face and she dances along. However, the film, in an obvious attempt to avoid sentimentality, veers a bit too far and becomes cold and clinical. It is much too afraid of emotion.
The film does a fine job of capturing the nuanced details of Ayo’s and Nike’s home life. “Why are you letting her ruin our lives?” Nike asks Ayo of his mother. “I’m not letting her do anything,” he replies. There is an exhausted and barely repressed anger that Gurira expertly exudes in this scene, and De Bankolé pulls off the oblivious and aloof husband perfectly. In another scene, Nike asks Ayo if she can get a job in order to accrue her own funds, and Ayo says she doesn’t need a job: her job is to stay home, or if she wants to work, she must work in his restaurant. There is a defeated submission in Nike’s eyes that could be devastating, but it isn’t given room to breathe. So many scenes pregnant with emotion are cut short to reveal a brightly colored brick wall or a nightscape through which Nike walks, beautifully dressed, to somewhere.
Climactic scenes that should be full of much less nuanced and powerful emotions are drowned out with sound or filmed in such a way as to cloud the issue. When Ayo and his mother argue in a restaurant over what should be done with Nike, the entire scene is filmed from the outside of his restaurant. We hear street traffic and wind and must peer through the glare of the plate glass to tell that they are arguing. When Nike and Ayo finally release their pent-up anger and have a blowout argument, the camera cuts away from them and starts losing focus and the music swells to cover the dialogue. The film is afraid of melodrama, but a film needs these bursts of passionate energy in order to achieve catharsis. Otherwise it becomes stale; it feels stunted. It was an odd experience watching this film, because everything feels so perfectly acted and observed as to feel wholly real, and yet at the same time the film was contrived in such a way as to avoid extreme emotion, so that I always felt I was watching a film: it didn’t pull me seamlessly in. I wanted to live in the world of these unique characters and to feel their devastating emotions, but the film frustrated me at every turn.
Darci Picoult wrote the script, and from what I’ve learned, there was much more dialogue initially. Dosunmu removed much of this because he felt Nigerian men don’t talk that much about their feelings. I believe he may have removed too much. There is so much in this film that is deliberately obtuse. It’s very telling that he used to work creating music videos, as this film feels like one: it’s incredibly stylish and beautiful, edited rhythmically, and hints at a larger emotional story. This could be enough for some people, but I was so enamored with the glimpse into the Yoruba community of New York, and into the lives of these fascinating characters, that I wanted more. Like the traditions this film scathingly satires, I found the film utterly beautiful and well crafted while simultaneously claustrophobic, self-serious, and suffocating.