Themes of impairment and disability are less evident in films about old age, says academic Alison Wilde. Here she examines how their portrayal is used in character development, focusing on two recent releases with a divergent impact.
‘Song for Marion’ was written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams and stars Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton and Christopher Eccleston. Quartet was directed by Dustin Hoffman and stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins
[WARNING: This review contains spoilers]
Over the last few years there have been a noticeable number of ‘older age’ comedy-drama films. Perhaps the most well-known of these is 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' (John Madden), the success of which may have created something of a template for those following it. However, my interest in such films began after I watched 'Mid-August Lunch', directed and starring Gianni di Gregorio; this Italian film thwarts our expectations, presenting portrayals of older women which are as nuanced and well-observed as the central male middle-aged character, Gianni, a ‘carer’ for his mother.
Illness, dying and death has often, as might be expected, featured in films depicting old age, but themes of impairment and disability are less evident and often used to signify the extent of age-related ‘decrepitude’ rather than as a separate element of the character. In some ways this may be seen as a good thing, leading to the positioning of disability as ‘normal’, largely inevitable, as an expected dimension of human existence and old age, which we are fortunate to reach.
But in other ways it perpetuates the invisibility of older disabled people and fails to challenge pervasive stereotypes, stereotypes perhaps more insidious than those we have already come to know and hate. Perhaps, then, disabled film-makers should turn our attention to these images before Ricky Gervais attempts to deconstruct them on our behalf in another ten years.
Disabled characters who are over 70 seem to have very few character types available to them in contemporary popular films and television. Judging from my experience of recent cinema, disabled older people tend to be depicted in three main roles: useless or tragic burdens to those around them; figures who are eaten up with resentment and bitterness; and sage-like personalities who dispense wisdom to and concern for other characters. Occasionally we see people who traverse both these roles, often depicting a moral journey from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Crone-like characters such as Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seem to exemplify this narrative arc - in this film she moves from being surly and racist, despising all those around her, to a revelation of herself as a figure who has the hidden skills, and wisdom to provide counsel and a happy ending for most of the other characters.
Of course, there are a number of exceptions to these conventional portrayals and there have been many films over the years which have dealt with ageing and impairment or disability, directly and indirectly, including masterpieces such as Kurusowa’s Ikiru, based on the last days of a (middle-aged) bureaucrat’s life (one of my favourite films). Nonetheless, the recent spate of older age films in the UK draw our attention to the absence of older people in leading roles, notwithstanding the ubiquitous presence of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
Recent films often seem to be very well intentioned in their aim to challenge the idea that older people have little to offer, which The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel did much in an unexpectedly enjoyable, if occasionally cheesy, way. One notable focus has been on the power of music and the liberating role of singing in particular, in Song for Marion and Quartet (the latter of which immediately grabbed my attention as someone who had early ambitions to be an opera singer).
I was concerned that both of these would be rather patronising, especially after watching the trailers. Quartet’s trailer, for example, shows Sheridan Smith telling an audience that older people have a ‘love of life’ which is ‘infectious’ and that ‘they inspire us’, a proclamation which probably deters anyone under 60 from seeing the film. However, the trailers for both of these films made me fear how well the themes of old age and music would be brought together without putting me off both.
Song for Marion trailers highlighted some excruciating clips of choir leader Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) urging her choir, the OAPZ (groan), to enter into the spirit of singing songs, which deliberately draw attention to their age. Although such mimicry can be a subversive strategy to debunk existing stereotypes, the way this was done left me perplexed. Besides, why would a wholesome and (apparently) social inept young woman want to start a choir which specialised in singing hip hop music like Salt’n ’Pepa’s ‘Let’s talk about sex’ and ‘Love Shack’ (that’s my memory of the B52s possibly ruined forever)? Elizabeth’s patient and sometimes cloying sweetness is completely at odds with any choirmaster I have ever experienced.
At times the audience is invited to laugh sympathetically at the courage of older men attempting to perform sexually provocative routines and ‘robot’ dancing, resulting in inevitable injury (neck braces and so on). The more serious injury sustained in these light comedy moments was that of reinforcing popular perceptions of older people as sexually impotent. Impairments or illness played several parts in this film, most obviously in the central storyline of Marion’s illness and subsequent death, but in humour, which was often founded on the declining physical functioning of the choir’s members.
I like the premise that music and art can give us sufficient reason to carry on when life feels fragile or harsh, and that the central character, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) chose singing as a primary source of joy in her last days. But, whilst there were a few pleasing moments in this film, the gentle humour was excruciating at points, only slightly less painful than the ridiculous turns in the plot. As a person who gets extremely irritated by audience members speaking during a film, I found myself blurting out, ‘Yeah, like that would happen!’
Other notable moments included a medical specialist breaking the news of her imminent death by stating ‘chips and ice cream’, a cryptic invitation to go home and indulge in anything she fancied as it wouldn’t matter anymore. Sadly, this was possibly one of the most realistic parts of the film, and the first time I thought of leaving the cinema.
In the end I really didn’t see the purpose of this film, which seemed simultaneously predictable and pointless, lending heroism to brave portrayals of dying and feminine passivity - at one point Marion literally ‘suffers in silence’. It also provided worryingly weak excuses, as well as expecting compassion, for her husband Arthur’s (Terence Stamp) failure to care about her or her son’s needs for independence and emotional support, compounding our cultural expectations of gender and care relationships.
However, the actors did the best they could with a poor script and a weak, unconvincing and pointless storyline. Later I found out that there are several older people’s choirs who sing contemporary songs, including ‘The Zimmers’ (specially created by Tim Samuels for a BBC documentary highlighting the isolation of older people in the UK) and a US choir, ‘Young@Heart’ . Given a choice I would much rather watch Samuels’ programme, or the documentary film ‘Young@Heart’ (directed by Walker George) especially after seeing their cover of the Ramones’ ‘I want to be sedated’.
Quartet was a much more enjoyable film than Song for Marion. Again, I was a bit suspicious of the premise of older people satisfying their passions through the medium of music and I worried that it would be quite a condescending film. I’m glad to say that the film exceeded my expectations and, despite some dodgy lines now and again, worked well on its own terms, portraying older people as gifted and creative individuals who were capable of facing their fears of old age, impairment and dependency.
The whole film is set in a retirement home for former musicians, featuring Sheridan Smith as Dr Lucy Cogan, the proprietor of the home (slightly miscast and overwhelmed as a timid doctor with an uncertain role). Whilst the film anchors itself firmly in the familiar trope of reminiscence of a more glorious past and the regrets of former life-changing mistakes, Quartet also creates a memorable portrait of old age, infirmity and community, which dwells in the present and places value on older disabled people’s lives.
Although Wilf’s (Billy Connolly) character may well result in a new older-disabled-male stereotype of the ‘very amiable - if slightly sexually predatory - “just having fun”, but otherwise understanding old duffer’ (a bit like many of Bill Nighy’s recent creations, but older and more ‘sexed-up’). Equally the very likeable, gentle character of Cissy is played by Pauline Collins with a great deal of compassion, which results in a rarely seen depiction of dementia as a much more nuanced experience, without robbing her of her personhood or sexual/gender identity. And Maggie Smith, as Jean Horton, a former diva, is as always a treat to watch.
The impairments of some of the characters played significant roles in the plot without dominating it. The film did an excellent job of portraying likeable characters, who we could empathise with. It must have worked, I found myself wanting to live there - if only all retirement homes were like this one.
It’s good then, I think, that film-makers are beginning to address stereotypes of old age, with or without impairment and disability, and that films may be made which have a little more relevance to an increasing number of older audiences.
Nonetheless, I hope that we can all expect more than the trite fare Song for Marion has to offer which plays to little more than low expectations of the ‘feel-good’ audience and their anticipated emotional incontinence. I hope future films featuring older disabled people will look beyond the UK and US for inspiration, especially those such di Gregorio’s ‘Mid-August Lunch’ and even ‘Shine a light’ (Scorsese, on The Rolling Stones) which avoid sentimentality and patronising attitudes in favour of portraying older people’s agency, and creating new possibilities for storytelling.