Dealing with Dementia
A look at love and loss of self in Supernova, Falling, and The Father.
I didn’t expect 2020 to produce so many films dealing with dementia and getting older. Nor did I expect for them to hit me quite so hard. As I witness my own parents age and go through new challenges, I find myself identifying with various aspects in each of the films I watched recently: Supernova, Falling, and The Father. Each film portrays dementia from a different perspective, showcasing the struggles of the person going through it, as well as the person desperately trying to take care of them. If you have the time, they are all worth a watch.
“You’re not supposed to mourn someone while they're still alive.”
(Stanley Tucci in Supernova)
Supernova is a 2020 dramatic film, written and directed by Harry Macqueen, starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. Firth and Tucci play Sam and Tusker, a longtime couple who load up their RV at the start of the film, ready to embark on a much-needed trip to visit friends and family in the Lake District in England. Sam (Firth) was once a concert pianist, and Tusker (Tucci) is a writer. Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and he is slowly losing his sense of self and ability to remember. Sam plans to become Tusker’s full-time caretaker. They are hoping to connect and getaway on this trip, but they each have their own agendas that do not quite match up. The film looks at their relationship and their love for each other, and it is one of the most accurate portrayals of a loving, challenging, long-term relationship that I have seen on screen. These two actors really do complement each other and bring out the best in each other’s performances. Tucci’s portrayal of Tusker’s dementia is the most understated of the three films I watched recently on the subject. But it is still painful to watch. Tusker knows what he wants and it is to not become a burden to his loved ones. It takes a while for Sam to finally come around to understanding and accepting his wishes, and Supernova is the journey that takes us there.
Viggo Mortensen makes his directorial debut with Falling. He also wrote the script, produced, and composed the music for the film. Mortensen’s film creates a less sympathetic character facing dementia head-on than Tusker in Supernova, but his portrayal of dementia is perhaps more relatable. It centers around John (played by Mortensen) and his aging father Willis, (played by Sverrir Gudnason and the amazing Lance Henriksen). We realize that the present-day Willis (Henriksen) is constantly being thrust back into memories of his past, and then minutes later is forced to find his footing in the present. John attempts to calm his father down and corral him during these meltdowns of disorientation, all the while accepting his father’s frequent bouts of verbal abuse (which seem to span both past and present-day). Where Supernova displays a slower-paced, more understated view of a character losing their grip on reality, Falling’s Willis constantly vacillates between the past and present, almost aggressively so. It can be frustrating and exhausting to watch, and it garners empathy by proxy for his son, John.
Occasionally, we shift to John’s own memories of his childhood and it enables us to speculate how they affect his feelings towards his father now. We realize that Willis was kind of an asshole long before he started losing his memory. Willis does not remember asking his son to help him move out to California where John and his sister, Sarah, both now live with their families. Willis is anxious to return home to NY. Mortensen’s look into dementia is an interesting one. Sounds often trigger memories - water, a glass hitting the kitchen counter - that transport Willis back in time. Laura Linney plays the older version of John’s sister, Sarah, and she is a class act as always. When Sarah talks about how beautiful the garden is instead of acknowledging her dad’s awful racist or homophobic rants, I shared in her awkward pain.
In the end, Willis continues to remain angry and constantly rejects his son’s help. He feels betrayed by his children, suspecting that they always loved their mother more than him. And maybe he’s right. When John has finally had enough of his father’s behavior, he tells him that the thing that bothers him most is that Willis has never said he was sorry to any of them. It hit home for me: watching a parent age that does not recognize that they are at times extremely hurtful or even a burden. Viggo Mortensen’s first film definitely merits viewing, and I look forward to what he does next.
The Father is co-written and directed by Florian Zeller, adapted from his 2017 play, “Le Père.” Anthony Hopkins portrays Anthony, the titular “father,” with the majority of the film’s action taking place inside what we initially view as his apartment (his “flat”) in London. His daughter, Anne, is played by the spectacular Olivia Colman. *(Side note: after seeing Colman portray the aging dowdy Queen Elizabeth on The Crown, it is a bit of a shock to see how beautiful and young she looks when she is playing her own age. She’s GORGEOUS. ENJOY.)
Anthony is sure he can take care of himself, and he still seems pretty with it for a man in his eighties. Sure, he likes to hide his valuables and constantly suspects someone took his watch, but all in all, he does not seem to need a caretaker. The tone shifts once Anne tells her father that she has met a man that she really cares for and they are moving to Paris. She needs to hire a new caretaker to help look after her father who cannot be on his own. Anthony feels he is being “abandoned,” something familiar and saddening for any child to experience with a parent.
That’s when things take a stark turn. I don’t want to spoil the film for those who have not seen it yet, so do yourself a favor and go watch it right now. Anthony Hopkins’ performance is amazing. His character - like Willis in Falling - starts to lose his grip on what is really happening, and frankly, so does the audience. Anthony initially attempts to just go with the flow and feign that he understands what is happening to him, but he becomes more and more disoriented throughout the film. He vacillates between being a charmer (to potential home health aide Laura played by Imogen Poots) and becoming hysterical at the thought of leaving “his flat.” He is at times cruel enough to bring his daughter Anne to tears, but then he turns on a dime and becomes so excruciatingly upset and pathetic that you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.
Unlike Willis, Anthony has some brief moments of clarity and appreciation, thanking his daughter for “everything.” This makes it all the more heartbreaking when we come to the film’s conclusion and witness Anthony’s dementia fully. We watch as his character attempts to accept his circumstances and enjoy the few pleasures he has. In addition to the excellent Olivia Colman, there are great performances by Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, and Rufus Sewell, but the film shines under the sun of Anthony Hopkins most of all.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro