A runaway couple go on an unforgettable journey in the faithful old RV they call The Leisure Seeker.
Director: Paolo Virzì
Writers: Michael Zadoorian (novel), Stephen Amidon (screenplay)
Stars: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Kirsty Mitchell
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” croons Janis Joplin in Me and Bobby McGee, the song that plays over The Leisure Seeker’s closing credits. The line is such a neat distillation of the film’s guiding spirit, it should really be painted on the back bumper of the Leisure Seeker itself – the vintage motorhome we’ve just seen dauntlessly chugging its way from Wellesley, Massachusetts to the Florida Keys with old marrieds Ella (Helen Mirren) and John (Donald Sutherland) Spencer on board.
This first English-language film from the Italian director Paolo Virzì, which premiered at Venice last night, is a consoling, teary-funny road trip comedy about an ageing couple who realise their days – of living independently, at least – are numbered.
John is slipping further into the fog of Alzheimer’s with every passing week, while Ella is due some kind of hospital treatment, which her chestnut bobbed wig, worn over her own closely cropped silver hair, suggests can be nothing good.
Rather than play along with the plans devised by their adult children (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney), the Spencers treat themselves to one last driving holiday together – a pilgrimage to the house in Key West occupied by Ernest Hemingway during nine of his most creatively fruitful years.
John, a former English teacher, recites Hemingway like Buddhist sutras – or perhaps, along with the old-timey slide shows the couple project against a blanket every evening in whichever campsite they’ve pull into, as a kind of mental yoga designed to keep his memory as supple as the Alzheimer’s allows.
A Canadian and an Englishwoman, The Leisure Seeker’s leads are both visitors to its winding all-American highways, and that seems to go double for Virzì, who shoots the film like a curious holidaymaker. The first voice we hear in the film is Donald Trump’s, thanks to audio from a 2016 campaign speech (“It is time to show the whole world that America is back!”) that intermingles with Carole King’s It’s Too Late on a car radio, with unexpected poignance.
The film doesn’t labour its place in history – the couple do cross paths with a crowd of Trump supporters at one point, but that’s it – yet there are regular, quiet acknowledgements that much of the social bedrock of the United States is now made up of non-white faces.
They certainly strike a wry contrast with John, whose grand white beard and tufty hair make him distinguished and simultaneously irreparably dishevelled, as if someone’s been keeping him rolled up under the bed, like an antique rug. Sutherland’s ability to radiate dignity even when his character loses himself in the depths of dementia is instrumental in making us ache for the younger, sharper man the film doesn’t even have to show us.
So too is Mirren, who brilliantly choreographs all the jostling emotions any spouse who becomes a carer has to deal with – we watch Ella move from amusement to exasperation and back again, often within the span of a sentence. Crucially, the film doesn’t just have John forget things in funny ways. It’s bluntly honest about the cruelty of his condition – the irritability, the delusions, the incontinence – and finds a rough-edged humour in that frankness.
There is a terrific scene at an open-air museum in which the Spencers bump into one of John’s ex-pupils, now a mother of two herself. Ella starts to make excuses for her husband, but then he launches into a detailed reminiscence of her schooldays, and the three-way dynamic is grippingly tricky: Sutherland revelling in a rare lucid memory, Mirren wounded and prickling that she isn’t a part of it, and the younger woman smiling yet sensing something’s up.
Later on, the film makes the bold decision to play a particularly crushing revelation for anguished laughs, and it really works, as Mirren homes in on the preposterous comedy of the situation without diminishing her character’s interior uproar.
The canon of Alzheimer’s films doesn’t lack for performances piled up with compassion and fine-grained observation, from Iris all the way to Still Alice. But as their faded Winnebago wends its way to the coast, Ella and John show there’s room for two more.
– Robbie Collin, The Telegraph