Elderly narratives are a genre unto themselves, with a formula all their own. Italian director Paolo Virzi’s English-language debut, The Leisure Seeker, is perfectly suited to appeal to the over-60 set with its sweetly told story of two elderly people going on one last adventure. Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are the Carl and Ellie Frederickson of the story and make the most of what amounts to a buttery slab of sentimentality.
Ella Spencer (Mirren) is suffering from an unknown illness as her husband, John (Sutherland) is lost in the haze of dementia. Desperate for one last trip, Ella and John abscond with their RV, the “Leisure Seeker”, on a trek to Ernest Hemingway’s house. Along the way, Ella must cope with her own mortality and secrets she didn’t know about her husband.
The Leisure Seeker’s plotline involving a long-term relationship and the fear of separation can be compared to Leo McCarey’s 1937 drama Make Way for Tomorrow. That classic, about an elderly couple separated and brought back together for one night, pulls the strings of the heart as often as it does tears from the eyes. The Leisure Seeker hopes to conjure up similar sentiments, but it never rises above formula.
Absolutely no exposition is provided to alert audiences to who Ella and John are, short of they have a son (played with the utmost discontent and disdain by Christian McKay) who discovers they’ve absconded with the RV. Why is he so worried by way of being irritated? It takes nearly two-hours to figure that out, despite being fairly obvious once John reiterates his desire for a hamburger four times while driving.
The two “professional tourists” embark on one last adventure and the road from there is well-traveled. Ella copes with her husband’s increasingly deteriorating memory, expressing her frustration at the times he forgets her, as well as the rare moments where his long-term memory kicks in. His recognition of a former student causes Ella to become irritated that the young woman is what he remembers. At times, it is hard to see Ella’s frustration for cluelessness. Ella chronically asks John “don’t you remember,” as if she’s suddenly unclear what’s happening to him, as if the characters are plopped into the narrative with little clue about what the definition of dementia is.
The Leisure Seeker’s brightest spots are the moments when it attempts to say something about age. Ella quickly strikes up conversations with others on the road; people who, too often, roll their eyes or attempt to leave. Remove the contrived narrative thrust involving Ella and John’s future – immediately discerned the minute one of them makes plans for their death – and the film’s saddest point is how often we attempt to remove the elderly from the world by ignoring them, a point further strengthened by the Spencer’s two children, Jane (Janel Moloney) and Will (McKay). Moloney is fine. McKay’s mode is pure annoyance for two hours. Regardless, it’s hard to care for either of them once they leave the narrative with plenty of runtime to spare.
Helen Mirren evokes a similar grace and dominance that she exhibited in Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Her Southern-tinged accent and brunette wig allow her to present Ella’s two halves: the beautiful wife who refuses to believe she’s been changed by time, and the exhausted woman too old to be coping with her husband’s new childlike nature. This becomes apparent as John becomes increasingly agitated about a romantic dalliance Ella had several decades ago.
Sutherland is the film’s catalyst, and he appropriately vacillates between scared confusion and foggy indignation. Ella reminds others about how “distinguished” John is, and Sutherland’s academic bearing shines, particularly as he opines about the works of Hemingway and Herman Melville. A torrid secret in the third act is deduced early on, and watching Ella’s heartbreak feels so keen in light of their continued attraction for each other.
Things play out exactly as you’d expect. With everyone in Ella and John’s life making no bones about how much of a burden they are, the couple’s fate is all but preordained, adding an overarching feel of melancholy and manipulation. Every move becomes telegraphed with an eye toward doom.
The Leisure Seeker is a pleasant distraction even though the endgame is depressing. Those who enjoyed Frears’ body of work will find the same eye towards presenting the over-60 set with some semblance of nuance, though it’ll be a hard sell to anyone not collecting AARP. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland make the most of what they’ve got on the screen.