Oh dear. What can I say? Another film that is likely to divide audiences. But in this case as opposed to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which is a well-directed and structured film with great performances I will express what I think. In TBEMH the difference of opinions can be explained by the social and personal situation of the viewers. In this film I would argue that the director who is also the scriptwriter assaults us with multiple issues about ageing with no subtlety or drama.
A scene by scene analysis would be tedious for me to write and for the reader to read, but it would point out the failure of the script, mise-en-scene and editing. I will confine myself to my thoughts.
There is nothing in the film that does not correspond to some aspect of ageing. Unfortunately all aspects are exposed in a succession of unconnected scenes peppered with homilies and platitudes. In the absence of narrative tension and characterisation, I had the impression of being presented with a boring self-help document entitled ‘What to expect when you reach 60’. The story is supposed to centre on the breakdown of marital communication and its resolution as a couple face old age. But let us deal first with the different issues as they affect the two protagonists.
OPENING SCENES: Ageing and Gender differences: Adam an architect is celebrated for his lifetime achievement by his colleagues and applauded enthusiastically, while Mary, his wife sits, outside the hall, in an empty space, on her own, looking lost and alienated. Her three children and her mother look at her in a concerned way. This beginning is effective and lead me to expect a serious treatment of the subject. But no, the subsequent development introduces a series of other issues.
Fear of Alzheimer’s: Mary has a major loss of memory. She wakes in a hotel room in bed with her husband and does not remember the previous evening and how she got there. After a brain scan, a patronising doctor reassures her and prescribes exercise and volunteering.
Loss of physical energy: Mary realises that she is not as fit as younger people
Fear of disablement: Mary adapts her house for loss of mobility.
Fear of loss of sex appeal: She has sex with the gym’s manager
Volunteering: Mary finds out that volunteers are unpaid and are patronised by a young manager. She creates an after school charity and makes sure the volunteers are paid.
Alienation from modern art.
Loss of status and age discrimination : Recognised for life time work but denied funding for a new project. He engages in a project with admiring young architects.
This list is meant to demonstrate that Mary is overreacting to getting old while Adam is in denial. For this conflict to work we need to believe in and get involved with the characters but this is impossible. Initially we are led to believe that Mary is experiencing the first signs of dementia. Her loss of memory, as shown and described, that lead her to take consciousness of her ageing cannot and should not be so easily dismissed by a brain scan interpreted by a patronising doctor. Rossellini’s unexpressive face, severe hair and clothes and poor acting worked well for a person on the verge of dementia. It can even be argued that some her behaviour and reactions in the rest of the film are due to creeping loss of common sense. It is difficult to accept that a retired teacher living in a middle class environment would utter the sentence : “We did women’s lib together”, and would a feminist be so lost at reaching the age of 60?
Adam played by Hurt is more convincing in his acting and attitudes. But he has less of an impossible script to contend with. All he wants to do is carry on working on a project of his own chosing with the younger architects but is thwarted by two of his colleagues who insist that the firm should concentrate on old people homes . The young architects however appreciate him. The indication of his crude dismissal of old people is in his sentence: ” I do not want to design storage for incontinent zombies”.
Adam and Mary’s relationship is badly constructed. We learn towards the end of the film that he has always been very busy and detached from family life and rather self-centred. We have few scenes demonstrating a loving relationship threatened by the difference in their perception of being old. She lectures him: “I am old and you are old. We have crossed over to the other side. We must change…. etc…. ” Exasperated by her nagging about ageing, he leaves home and collaborates and socialises with the young and finishes by being seduced by one of them. Here again I am asking myself: is the scriptwriter trying hard to avoid a stereotype? The usual and common real life scenario is that the older man seduces the young assistant.
The marital reconciliation occurs after the death of Nora, Mary’s mother. Mary realises that her husband knew about Nora’s terminal cancer. She takes the fact that Adam had concealed the sad news from her as a proof that he has changed into a caring person. I see no signs that Adam has changed. Mary then declares that she has got to change also. But we have no baseline for Mary as a character. Change from what to what?
Three other generations are present in this film. Adam and Mary’s adult children are remote but concerned about the estrangement of their parents and try to educate themselves about ageing. Again the script shouts another platitude in the mouth of the eldest son to his father : “Do you know that there are two types of age ? Cognitive age and real age?…She made sacrifices for us… “. The younger son and the daughter also utter clichés : “You took care of us, I want to take care of you for a change” and on and on.
Two bickering grandchildren, in a brief scene with Nora, are there only to demonstrate that nowadays children rely the television to entertain themselves while in Nora’s time they used their imagination.
I must admit that compared to the gloomy and heavy treatment of the two leads, I found Nora as played by Doreen Mantle a convincing old woman. Maybe because I unconsciously refer to her other old women roles on British TV, maybe because she would fit well in the Growing Old Disgracefully Network that I belong to. She has a good time with her friends and faces death in a realistic manner.
The older architect, though, played by Simon Callow apart from holding forth about the new need in architecture to design old people’s homes, is only a vehicle to throw at Adam and us, the audience, a mish-mash of old people’s attributes: the dodgy heart, Viagra, the plastic hip and artificial knee, the teeth implants and hearing aid, the need for validation. He does laugh about it and ends up with a quote, the bitter but brave ” Growing old is not for sissies”. Although the expression has become generally used it was first used by Bette Davis when after she was diagnosed with cancer, she suffered a stroke. The failure of a woman scriptwriter not to attribute the quote infuriated me and clinched my feeling that this film is a rag-bag of second-hand information.
I will finish with the Grey Panthers group led by Charlotte (Joanna Lumley). Their sole function in the film is to proffer clichés, platitudes and statements about architecture and old people.
As I was going to write about the obtrusive original music that underscored insistently every change of mood, it occurred to me that the sometimes jaunty fanfare like music (trumpet, drum, saxophone, trombone) may indicate that the film is a comedy and that I missed the whole point. No the film did not work for me. And to add another irritant, its title has nothing to do with its content…
I watched the film with 6 other old women. There were two of us who did not like the film. Two were ambivalent and three did appreciate it.
The film has not yet been released in the UK but has had one screening at the Lumiere to launch the European Year of Active Ageing. I wonder whether the distributors and exhibitors will find that it has a market in the UK or not.