Jean Dwight (Brenda Blethyn) is an English comedienne stranded in the western suburbs of Sydney. Her marriage to a country singer (Frankie J Holden) has dissolved, leaving her with two sons and a mortgage. She’s overweight, overwrought and over here, a long way from home. Younger son Mark (Richard Wilson) has had mild brain damage since birth. His older brother Tim (Khan Chittenden) is terminally shy. Jean works in a factory canteen by day and does stand-up comedy in Sydney leagues clubs by night. Her bitterness comes out in her comedy routines and the fierce jealousy of her response to Tim’s new girlfriend, Jill (Emma Booth). Tim is 20 and terrified of sex until he meets the gorgeous and willowy Jill. His life begins to take off as his mother’s career plummets. He discovers love as Jean contemplates with terror the loss of her son.
Keith Thompson was born in Dover, England, where his mother played in dance bands. He grew up around stage people and Clubland is partly his tribute to their generosity and eccentricity. That’s why Jean is played by Brenda Blethyn, an English actress best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s film Secrets and Lies. She brings the rhythm and style of an end-of-the-pier comic to the role of Jean, a woman who channels her disappointment into an aggressively sexual style of comedy, consisting mainly of put-downs of men.
Sexuality is at the core of the film, which is a surprise, because it’s about a mother-son relationship. Thompson has said it’s about the difficult moment when the passionate bond between a boy and his mother changes, due to his discovery of sex. Tim’s previous attempts to establish a relationship with a girl have ended in disaster – what Jean calls ‘the Samantha incident’. Jill is a different kind of girl. She’s quite capable of standing up to the barrage of Jean’s withering remarks. Part of what makes the film fresh is its frankness about the attraction between Tim and Jill. Once Jill has coaxed him past his fears, director Cherie Nowlan depicts their lovemaking with unusual candour and joy.
That makes it easier to believe when Jill shows that she’s ready to fight for him, against Jean’s maternal manipulations. Jean could easily have become a monstrous character, and she’s pretty hard to like in some respects, but Brenda Blethyn’s performance is finely calibrated. Jean is disappointed, manipulative and harsh – but she has a fierce love for her boys, like a lioness defending her cubs. Raising them largely by herself after her divorce, losing her promising career in England to end up stranded in the Sydney suburbs, never learning to drive – all of these have made her dependent on them. No wonder she’s terrified by Jill’s involvement with Tim – and her terror is not just practical – Jill threatens to take away the most passionate relationship in her life.