There’s a thing goes through the head of Nurse Stabby-Fingers, I’m sure. Apart from the vindictive quality of her bed-baths, a legend in an A Wing stuffed full of lacerated arses and regretful old men, she has a nose for cruel kindness. We knew something was up when the bright yellow oldster-transport van backed up to the front door and a small group of us was ushered into its clinical seating-with-convenient-wheelchair-space interior. Shopping? Swimming? What could she suck the joy from with a bit of thoughtlessness and wilful cruelty: the cinema! Not for us the clever choices of Nurse Lovely, oh no, this afternoon we were set for a tale of two oldsters on a trip together through the edge of America, from Boston to Key West, dodging their adult children, charging through a wall of dialogue and nightly slide shows, their own decrepitude and long love, in an RV nicknamed The Leisure Seeker.
The film stars Helen Mirren as Ella Spencer, bewigged and suddenly wispy, white and short when without. She is the incessantly cheery, chatty and snarky wife of Donald Sutherland‘s John Spencer: all dignified with glowing hair, tended beard and wretched forgetfulness. So – that’s all code for cancer and dementia. You’re experienced, you’ll pick up on it in seconds. The film tries to convince you that chatty Mirren is fine and bravely letting Alzheimered Sutherland drive them on a memory-triggering holiday. That’s certainly an element in play, but the balanced tragedy is the point. You’ll see it straight away, even if the young don’t.
Of course, the young will sympathise with Christian McKay and Janel Moloney as their kids, worried sick at their surprise departure, desperately calling mobiles that go unanswered, faffing and worrying. That’s the joy of having middle-aged kids: the revenge of watching them flicker from controlling to subservient. Whilst we don’t get to see any shared scenes with the oldsters and middlesters, The Leisure Seeker triggered a few wry smiles at the dynamics on show. There was even a muted cheer when Mirren hung up on the kids…
The film is a road movie, smacking of a final journey together, perhaps a metaphor for married life, life or just this couple’s last gasp at normality. The fun of it is in the terrific performances from the stars.
Mirren exhausts with unceasing dialogue, but she invests Ella with the comic panic of a carer, wife, mother and petulant victim of her own and her husband’s diseases. She has another interesting accent (see Woman in Gold (2015) for another), but you won’t mind. She loves her husband, snipes at him, is jealous of occasional memories that consume him (an old pupil) and tolerates his chats with waitresses about the wonder of Hemingway’s prose (one is bemused, another enthused – comic and tragic, both).
Sutherland is wonderful. His mix of mess and dignity made old Jack feel the ironing is worth the effort. His performance is exemplary and entrancing: the occasional flash of the brilliant, attractive man John was before, set against the different personalities of forgetfulness and the thudding great secret that emerges late in the film, all make for excellence. And the skill is lightly shown, but you know it’s a lifetime on stage that gifts him the multiple personalities presented here. All feel real.
The story plays out as a series of incidents, much like every road movie ever! It is a series of emotional leaps, mood-sinking setbacks in the health of both, and insights to family, children and persistent love in nightly slide-shows in camps or hotels. The couple survive shocking driving, police inspection, burst tyres, attempted mugging (Mirren and Sutherland sail though a scene that is scary, funny and ultimately shows the old team is still a team – I wept for old Mrs Jack) and that secret.
Nurse Stabby-Fingers chose a film that made half of us miserable, one of us desperate and old Jack here torn between the joy of it and resentment at what it showed. The Leisure Seeker is a nicely shot piece, with tangibly normal-yet-lovely performances, but is like watching two skiers shoot off a cliff with their eyes firmly shut. Unlike the acceptance of Away From Her (2006), it doesn’t embrace reality particularly well. Sutherland’s dementia feels ever so slightly convenient (though nothing close to the drama-crimes of Remember (2015)), and there is a continual sense of light-but-still-there filmic artifice.
We got back in the bus after the film, silent and tentative. We were oldsters faced with the consequences of those skiers shooting off that cliff and really not wanting to talk about it. As Nurse Stabby-Fingers poked at the steering wheel and swerved us back to the home, we stared out of the windows and watched life go by.
Watch with care.