There have been an awful lot of dementia movies in 2020 (a year we all wish we could forget). One of them, The Father, made my Top 10 list. Sure, there have always been movies that used that as a topic. One of the worst that comes to mind was Still Alice in 2014, which my film group in Critics’ Choice gave the best actress award to Julianne Moore for, and she went on to win the Oscar for it, too.
This low-key film by Harry Macqueen (Me and Orson Welles) has two actors that have gotten Oscar nominations before, and it feels a bit like Oscar bait.
Sam (Colin Firth) is a famous pianist, and his partner of 20 years, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a novelist. They’re going on a road trip through the idyllic English Countryside, then they’ll end up in Scotland for a concert Sam will perform. Sam wants to stay retired and take care of Tusker, who is battling dementia. The odd thing is it doesn’t manifest itself in ways real people have to deal with when it comes to the disease. In fact, Tusker has hardly any episodes. The only one I recall from the movie is his going out to walk the dog and getting lost. And that reminded me of a former film critic I used to talk movies with. He told me he hates every movie that features a mentally challenged character, because they always make it look like a walk in the park, or that the person with the mental challenges only says things that are cute, and we don’t see the ugly side of them throwing a fit in a store for 15 minutes. Since he has to deal with a child that has these problems, I can get his anger that movies don’t portray that side of it, but I think as audiences and critics, we should let a lot of stuff go in order for the director to tell the story they want. Otherwise, every time we watch a James Bond movie we’re going to have to wonder why the bad guys can never hit him with a bullet when machine gun fire is sprayed in his direction. Yet that being said, it still bothered me a bit that Tusker isn’t confused more, doesn’t have any violent outbursts, or doesn’t say/do anything inappropriate. It’s as if he was only diagnosed a few weeks ago.
It’s enjoyable to see how this couple is affectionate and the tenderness they share is sweet. The times they bicker feel authentic. One of them wants the GPS on to help with directions, the other hates hearing it. Yet I thought how much more lovely the moments were when Firth played a gay professor in Tom Ford’s A Single Man.
This road trip does have a lot of wide shots, provided beautifully by Dick Pope. We see the hills and trees, and it makes you want to get an RV. Although that also made me think of another older couple who got an RV for a road trip for someone suffering dementia — The Leisure Seeker (2017) with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. That movie had a lot more moments where the dementia manifests itself, and also a bit more humor. Although Leisure Seeker also tried cheating with the emotions (one of those moments has a slide show). In this movie, you get a few tears when you see the novel Tusker is working on, and a speech he wrote that he is about to give at a dinner party. Yet it just seems there could have been more. In one scene, we watch them tape record their conversations, and it’s not that interesting. Another scene has Tusker, who is obsessed with stars and astronomy, pointing things out in the sky to a young girl. Those scenes needed to be written better.
I noticed a few critics knocked this movie because the couple didn’t have to fight any homophobia or anything, but…it’s 2021, and…these are both very successful, older men. They’re running in circles with classical musicians, authors, and as we see in a party scene at a sister’s house — friends and family that love and accept them. And while it’s nice that it’s not that type of movie, it does make you wish there was…some sort of turmoil they had to deal with. Late in the movie there is something they have to deal with, but I won’t spoil it. That felt a little bit too late, and not exactly believable. It is refreshing that the critics aren’t knocking the filmmaker for casting straight actors to play gay characters, an argument I’m so sick of having with people.
My wife, who thinks Colin Firth can do no wrong, was a bit bothered they didn’t show their house, so we could get a better idea who these guys were and how they lived. And it’s true, there wasn’t so much character development, which means neither really had a chance to exude the type of charm that Firth had in A Single Man.
The filmmaker deserves props for not trying to make it overly sentimental, but without much drama, it doesn’t tug at the heart strings the way it should. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t feel something when you have lines like “You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they’re still alive” or “You’re the one he fell in love with” which is responded to with “No, I’m not. I just look like him.”
The closing scene is also very powerful.
The score was nice, as well as the songs we hear (Catch the Wind, Heroes, House of the Rising Sun).
Movie fun fact: the actors both decided before filming, to switch roles. The only other time I heard of that happening with a two-hander was Robert De Niro and Bill Murray in Mad Dog and Glory (an underrated comedy).
2 ½ stars out of 5.