The Leisure Seeker (2017)

The_Leisure_Seeker

It’s just something I really need to do with your father.  Retired English teacher John Spencer (Donald Sutherland) and wife Ella (Helen Mirren) take off in their RV without telling anyone in order to escape a probable nursing home (him, with Alzheimer’s) and a punishing chemo regime (her, for cancer). They abandon grown up son Will (Christian McKay) who cares for them each day, despite knowing it’s his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who’s the favoured offspring and college professor a comfortable couple of hours away. The siblings are up the walls about the disappearance. Even neighbour Lillian (Dana Ivey) is out of the loop. The couple negotiate the Seventies vehicle down the east coast via camp sites, diners, the world’s slowest police chase, historical re-enactments, a stint in a home and occasional beaches, to their eventual destination, the home of John’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, in Key West.  En route their journey has revelations, massive doses of forgetfulness, a holdup, a posh hotel, a terrible (unconscious) admission, illness and phonecalls home… Michael Zadoorian’s novel is adapted by Italian director Paolo Virzi, making his English language feature debut, with Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi and Francesco Piccolo, and it bears up considerably better than you might think. This isn’t just down to the playing of the leads, who are brilliant, although Mirren’s Savannah accent slips a lot.  There are lovely moments particularly when Sutherland is regaling waitresses with lines from his favourite books and when one confesses she’s done her thesis on it he’s in hog heaven. Ella prefers the movie adaptations. They are a joy to watch, sparking off one another and falling into old habits and new ideas.  Their life together is recalled in tranquil bouts of watching slides on a sheet outside the RV at night when they’re camping. Their days are about coping and how exhausting it is to be a carer and to be ill but also how genuinely in love they have been and how that materialises in their concern for one another. Sutherland’s recurring obsession with Mirren’s first boyfriend from fifty years earlier has a funny payoff.  How she deals with his husbandly failing is hilarious.  His physical response to one medication is … unexpected! But its success is also to do with the deep understanding of Alzheimer’s which causes bouts of memory loss and bullying all too familiar to anyone with a relative suffering its predations – I laughed aloud with recognition far too many times.  While this is concerned with ageing in a semi-comic context it’s a very pointed narrative about the ways in which older people are made feel lousy about their right to exist, how they are treated when they are beginning to become infirm and the radical element here is how one couple choose how to live and exit gracefully when they take the opportunity (even if one of them doesn’t really know what in hell is going on). Immensely enjoyable.

 

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For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls movie

Great books should make great films, isn’t that how it goes? That’s how it should go, most people reason. Hemingway’s finest novel (at least at that time, perhaps – some of us might beg to differ) about the Spanish Civil War got the A treatment at Paramount. The author himself hand-picked Ingrid Bergman to play Maria the abused guerilla fighter and Gary Cooper to play Robert Jordan the American college instructor volunteer who is being deployed to blow up a bridge to face off the fascists. The problem is, the screenplay by Dudley Nichols is a rackety thing that doesn’t entirely subscribe to Hemingway’s vision and in this version (130 minutes broadcast edition – there are THREE others!) it takes a whole hour to get going which means the structure is wrong. But then it REALLY gets going and never lets up. The romance between our mismatched pair ratchets several notches – Kiss me!  she dares him. You’re shameless! he retorts. I’ve never been a fan of Bergman but she gains a little in magnificence here. Cooper is probably the perfect Hemingway man. They have a double agent in the ranks and an army to fight off. The direction is okay by Sam Wood, who was directing the second of three (in a row) films with Cooper – the previous was The Pride of the Yankees (Cooper got an Academy Award), the next would be Casanova Brown. But what is amazing is the score by Victor Young which became the first soundtrack album. The strings are sweet and greatly underline the emotions. The Technicolor photography by Ray Rennahan is also notable even if it looks a little off these days. Not really great filmmaking, but eventually worth a look, especially for the pretty thickly cut ham from Katina Paxinou as Pilar the gypsy which earned her an Academy Award. Most people in the film got nominations and it was the biggest box office hit of the year.