Categories
Films

Quartet

Based on Ronald Hardwood’s successful stage play of the same name, Quartet is actor Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut. The film adaptation’s absolutely packed to the gills with wonderful British actors of a certain vintage. It’s refreshing to see a film with so many meaty parts for older people. The plot’s quite simple. Beecham House is a retirement home for elderly musicians and it’s threatened with closure. When the movie opens Cedric (Michael Gambon) is rallying the troops. They’ll organise a gala performance showcasing their talents in order to raise enough money to save their home. The gala’s in need of a headline act and when Jean (Maggie Smith) moves into Beecham House, everyone assumes the concert is saved. Back in the day Jean was the star turn in a fantastic quartet comprising of fellow residents, Reg (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins). You’ll not be too surprised to hear that their plans don’t go smoothly but eventually the gala concert takes place and the home is saved. 

As the film depicts a large residential care facility, a number of the minor characters are living with dementia. The film makes much of their forgetfulness and general confusion but shies away from exploring the more difficult aspects of the illness. For the most part, this is a very gentle exploration of dementia. The older people are depicted as a little doddery, sometimes in a comedic fashion, but never angry or disturbed. The character of Cissy, played by Pauline Collins is given a little more scrutiny. She’s clearly living with dementia. At the film’s opening Reg and Wilf discuss her condition and agree she’s starting to deteriorate. However, aside from several small incidents, (a fall which leads to a marked decline in her cognisance and a brief lapse in awareness when she tries to “check out” of Beecham House, mistaking it for a cruise ship), it is almost possible to dismiss Cissy’s dementia as an artistic affectation or part of her “ditzy” personality. I didn’t find the depiction particularly believable although I thoroughly enjoyed her character and could see Hoffman was using this aspect of her character as a device to aid the plot and the comedy.

Quartet is a thoroughly delightful film. It celebrates and champions older people and also highlights the importance of friendship and community. I’m not sure it’s the most accurate depiction of dementia I’ve ever seen but it left me thinking it was heartening to see a character with dementia being allowed to perform and show that she’s still an amazing singer. It’s also lovely to see a depiction of the kind of support networks and community between older people I often come across in the real world. 

Quartet was directed by Dustin Hoffman and released in the UK in January 2013 

Categories
Films

Marjorie Prime

Michael Amereyder’s ambitious feature film, Marjorie Prime is based on Jordan Harrison’s play of the same name. In the film Lois Smith plays Marjorie, a role she originally played on stage. Marjorie Prime explores issues around AI and ageing in what could’ve been a really interesting way. Marjorie is an elderly lady living with dementia. Her daughter, (played by Geena Davis), and son-in-law, (played by Tim Robbins), live with her. They also employ a live in carer. The depiction of early dementia is very accurate. Marjorie is confused and occasionally forgetful but still very present and able to interact with her family. Her family have purchased a prime of Marjorie’s late husband Walter, (played by Jon Hamm), to keep the old lady company and ensure her brain is stimulated. The prime is a kind of interactive hologram. It looks exactly like Walter in his forties. It talks to Marjorie, gathering up information and memories so it can gradually become more and more human-like in its interactions with her. 

The idea of the prime is really interesting. As Marjorie’s memory fades the information she’s feeding the prime version of Walter is less and less accurate. Her son-in-law also helps to programme the prime with snippets of information he remembers about their relationship. However, in an attempt to protect Marjorie, he censors all the disturbing memories and creates a past for her which never actually existed. I thought this was a fascinating illustration ofhow loved ones often interact with people living with dementia. As memory fades, there is an opportunity to censor, adjust and enhance the stories which are recalled, thereby shaping the person’s sense of reality and ultimately, themselves.

If Amereyder had further explored this idea with Marjorie and her prime, I think this could have been an excellent film. However, I felt it began to lose the thread a little when Marjorie died and her daughter, acquires a Marjorie prime, then the daughter dies, leaving behind a prime for her husband. The final scene shows the three primes talking, sharing a simple story about the family dog which is now so mis-remembered and adjusted, it bears absolutely no similarity to the original anecdote. I’d like to have seen more of the interaction between Marjorie and her prime and perhaps a little more depth to the direction. It feels quite flat in places, a lot like watching a recording of a play. In adapting the stage version for screen, I think Amereyder could have explored a little more of Marjorie’s background and the reality of her past.

Marjorie Prime was directed by Michael Amereyder and released in the UK in October 2017

Categories
Films

The Roads Not Taken

In English director Sally Potter’s most recent feature, The Roads Not Taken, the first discernible words uttered by the main character, are “everything is open.” In a sense this statement, mumbled by Leo, a writer living with Dementia, (perfectly portrayed by Hollywood A-Lister, Javier Bardem), gives the viewer a quick synopsis of the entire film. The screenplay, (also written by Potter), jumps backwards and forwards between three different points in Leo’s life. We see him as a younger man, married to Salma Hayek and mourning the death of their son, in exile from his second marriage, writing alone in Greece and finally as an older man, confused and depleted by the illness, being guided through a single day’s errands around the city in the company of his daughter Molly, (sensitively played by Elle Fanning). Everything is open at the same time in this movie. Time is fluid as Leo’s memory leaps and flits from one period to the next. Potter does a masterful job of capturing the eternal present of living with Dementia where the past can seem just as real and believable as the moment the person is actually living in. I particularly enjoyed the way the movie skipped seamlessly between the various stages of Leo’s life, leaving much unsaid, mumbled or deliberately confusing, so the viewer empathises with the confusion experienced by Leo and his family.

The strongest section of The Roads Not Taken is undoubtedly the strand set in Leo’s present. The relationship between Leo and his daughter Molly -who has taken on much of the carers role- is believable, warm and occasionally heart-breaking. We see Molly’s distress when her father wanders off in the middle of the night. We see her struggle to understand his speech and promise to, “try harder to see it from your point of view. To see what you see.” We see her frustrated when she loses out on a big job because of her responsibilities with her father. We see her irate at the way others treat Leo, speaking over him and patronising him. But what comes across most strongly in Potter’s depiction of their relationship is the way father and daughter continue to find small moments of connection even as the illness forces them apart. There’s a particularly poignant scene in the bathroom at the dentist’s when, having soiled his own trousers, Molly gives her father hers. Even in the midst of humiliation and confusion there are moments when this movie manages to laugh and yet there’s no schmaltzy ending here, no neat conclusion or moment of epiphany. Leo and Molly’s situation is just as complex and difficult at the end of their day together as it was in the opening credits. Neither does Potter attempt to deify Leo or paint Molly as a saint. Both are flawed, occasionally failing characters. This is what makes them believable. 

Bardem is wonderful in this movie. He has a huge presence onscreen and the sheer bulk of his body, though slowed and atrophied by Dementia, refuses to be relegated to the ranks of a shadowy invalid. He is enormously present throughout. The camera often lingers painfully close to his face, exposing every wrinkle and pore. We are forced to look straight and deliberately at Leo as a person, present with his illness. Here, it is impossible to ignore the person living with Dementia. The Roads Not Taken takes an unflinching look at Dementia and our treatment of people living with the illness. To some extent, this unflinching personal gaze makes the viewer feel culpable in the way society has othered, dismissed and ignored the Dementia experience. I don’t think this is any bad thing.

The Roads Not Taken was directed by Sally Potter and released in the UK in September 2020 

Categories
Films

Falling

Falling is actor, Viggo Mortensen’s debut effort as both a writer and director and it is a stunning accomplishment. Mortensen casts himself as John, a successful pilot, living in California with his husband and their adopted daughter. The movie begins, (in quite shocking fashion), with a scene on a plane. John is flying home from the Midwest with his father, Willis, (Lance Henriksen), when the older man’s dementia causes him to forget where he is and create a scene. Willis is in California to look for a smaller property as he transitions away from the large farm he’s no longer capable of looking after. However, nothing goes to plan during his visit: he manages to offend his daughter, played by Laura Dern, forgets he’s agreed to move house and is so belligerent and offensive he insults almost everyone he comes into contact with.

The film moves backwards and forwards between contemporary time -where Henriksen does an incredible job of portraying an older man who is stubborn, angry and ultimately afraid of losing his own autonomy- and the past -where Sverrir Gudnasson plays a much younger version of Willis who is not yet living with dementia but is equally stubborn, angry and intent upon wielding his authority over his family. Mortensen’s portrayal of John is notable for his forbearance and his measured approach to his father. He maintains the same patient demeanour throughout as his father rages, delivers homophobic and racist insults and humiliates him at every turn. Mortensen’s compassion is so marked it makes the moment when he finally loses his temper -railing against his father for years of abuse- one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

It’s so refreshing to come across a narrative which explores the difficult subject of how to care for someone who is not nice and never has been. This topic is rarely covered in books and movies though, in my experience, it’s reasonably common to find someone caring for a family member who has dementia despite a fractured or even abusive relationship. Mortensen handles the material with sensitivity, but he’s also unflinching when it comes to including the harrowing details. I also appreciated the way he resists stereotyping Willard. Yes, this man is a horrible, racist, homophobic, misogynist but he’s also fond of his granddaughter and displays genuine affection for her. This is a difficult watch but a necessary one. I’d thoroughly recommend checking it out. 

Falling was written and directed by Viggo Mortensen and released in the UK in February 2021