It seems like yesterday when we were bemoaning the fact that Hollywood didn’t make movies for grown-ups anymore. (Or maybe that was just me arguing back in 2012 that our cinemas were full of recycled superheroes and stupid action films aimed at teenaged boys.)
Well, right now you don’t have to look far to find great movies about characters who are not only grown up, but quite frankly old. It says something about our culture that I spent a good ten minutes trying to find a polite word to use instead of ‘old’, ‘elderly’ or ‘aged’. But why not tell the truth and stare age in the face, the way the movies themselves are doing it?
Nebraska, All Is Lost and Le Week-End are in release this week (20 Feb), while The Great Beauty and Philomena (starring an energetic 79-year-old Judi Dench) are still going strong in art-house release. There’s hardly an unwrinkled face among them. (We could also talk about the horrid Last Vegas, starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline as superannuated boys on a tacky and embarrassing bachelor party spree, but let’s just stick to the films you should see.)
Nebraska stars a 77-year-old Bruce Dern, who’s up for an Oscar for his fearless performance as Woody, a shuffling, wispy-haired alcoholic on the verge of dementia. Woody is obsessed with travelling to Nebraska to collect a shonky $1 million prize. His long-suffering adult son (Will Forte) tags along as the old man doggedly pursues his tragi-comic dreams. Shot in lustrous black and white, and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), Nebraska manages to maintain a perky outlook, while still being bleakly realistic about ageing and the experience of living with persistent regrets and disappointments.
All is Lost is the powerful and almost wordless story of a lone sailor struggling to survive in the open ocean. Directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and starring the rugged 77-year-old Robert Redford, it’s a gripping depiction of stoic resourcefulness, but also a film that refuses to shy away from mortality. The snowballing problems that strip him of his initial mastery and self-reliance can be read as a metaphor for the endless challenges and potential indignities of the ageing process.
On a lighter note, Le Week-End (written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell) follows a sixty-something British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) who go to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. In the process, they confront the realities and irritations of their marriage – with lots of comedy to leaven the mix. Beautifully written and performed, there are biting truths here that will resonate with anyone who’s lived in a long term relationship. There’s the added sting of seeing that growing older doesn’t necessarily make love any easier. In fact, with finite years left, there’s even more urgency to live well and find bliss.
We live in a culture that worships the beauty of youth and celebrates the accomplishments of the precocious. (She did all that! And she’s not even 28!) Yet the reality is that if we’re lucky, we’re all going to grow old. And whether we face it or not, we’re all going to die. It’s the ultimate equaliser. Perhaps you like to go to the movies to escape such grim facts, and there’s nothing wrong with pure escapism.
Still, there’s something bracing and even reassuring about seeing old people take centre stage on screen. They go before us and show us how it can be done – and sometimes how it shouldn’t be done. Such stories insist that there are still adventures to be had over the age of 60; still journeys to be taken, demons to be wrestled and love that must be continually reinvented if it is going to see us to the grave.
Sobering? Perhaps. Or maybe just real. Old characters on screen – in all their messy variety – are there as they should be, as part of the human race.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor.