Monday 9th July 2018

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The Leisure Seeker

“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 summation of the film’s spirit, it should really be painted on the back bumper of the Leisure Seeker itself – the vintage motorhome that dauntlessly chugs its way from suburban 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 is an impeccably acted, teary-funny comedy about an ageing couple coming to terms with the fact that their days of living independently are numbered. John is slipping further into the fog of Alzheimer’s with every passing week, while Ella is awaiting some kind of hospital treatment, the exact nature of which is suggested by her closely cropped and wispy silver hair, which she covers with a bobbed chestnut wig.

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But rather than go along with their adult children’s plans – Christian McKay and Janel Moloney play the half-helpful, half-meddlesome offspring – 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 as a kind of mental yoga designed to keep his memory as supple as his worsening condition allows.

A Canadian and an Englishwoman, Sutherland and Mirren both bring an outsiders’ eye to a film that’s fizzily curious about the state of America right now, and that goes double for Virzì, who shoots the film like a tourist on a cross-country trip. 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 unexpectedly bracing pathos.

The film doesn’t labour its place in history, but a sense of that history ticks away throughout under the surface – such as the regular, unspoken acknowledgements that much of the United States’s working-class bedrock is now predominantly non-white.

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John, on the other hand, is in a class of his own. His grand white beard and tufty hair make him either distinguished or dishevelled depending on the angle you catch him at: he almost looks as if someone has been keeping him rolled up under the bed, like an antique rug. Sutherland’s ability to radiate dignity even as his character is losing himself in the depths of dementia is instrumental in making us ache for the younger, sharper man the film doesn’t show us, but whom we nevertheless sense we once knew.

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Meanwhile, Mirren brilliantly shows us Ella wrestling with her heartbreaking transition from spouse to carer – we watch her 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 unexpectedly into a detailed remembrance of the younger woman’s schooldays. The three-way dynamic is grippingly tricky: John revelling in a rare lucid memory, Ella wounded and prickling that she isn’t a part of it, and the younger woman smiling yet sensing something’s not right.

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The canon of Alzheimer’s films doesn’t want for performances full of compassion and fine-grained observation, from Iris all the way to Still Alice. But as their faded Winnebago wends its way towards the coast, Ella and John show there’s room for two more.

Me and Bobby McGee

Kris Kristofferson

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
It rode us all the way to New Orleans
I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna
I was playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues, yeah
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I was holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no
And, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee
From the Kentucky coal mine to the California sun
There Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done
Yeah, Bobby baby kept me from the cold
One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away
He’s lookin’ for that home, and I hope he finds it
But, I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday
To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, that’s all that Bobby left me, yeah
But, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
Hey, feelin’ good was good enough for me, mm-hmm
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee
La da da
La da da da
La da da da da da da da
La da da da da da da da
Bobby McGee, yeah
La da da da da da da
La da da da da da da
La da da da da da da
Bobby McGee, yeah
La da La la da da la da da la da da
La da da da da da da da da
Hey, my Bobby
Oh, my Bobby McGee, yeah
La la la la la la la la
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Hey, my Bobby
Oh, my Bobby McGee, yeah
Well, I call him my lover, call him my man
I said, I call him my lover did the best I can, c’mon
Hey now, Bobby now
Hey now, Bobby McGee, yeah
Woo
La da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la la
Hey, hey, hey Bobby McGee, yeah
La da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la da, la
Hey, hey, hey, Bobby McGee, yeah

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