The Alzheimer’s sub-genre of drama has produced some strong cinema in recent years, but they are few and far between. The strongest ones have always dealt with relationships, focusing on the tragic irony of how the disease gradually erases the memories of one partner while memories in the other stay intact. A past that once provided the building blocks that had deepened the love between two people becomes only partially erased between the couple, creating a cruel fissure between them that neither have control over.
Iris (2001) was a biopic about novelist Iris Murdoch (Kate Winslet/Judi Dench) and her romance with John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville/Jim Broadbent). It was a moving work that jumped between their early and later years, culminating in the realization that the consciousness of one of the lovers, the artistic, freewheeling Iris, had ceased to exist. Sarah Polley’s amazing Away From Her (2006) brought a similar examination to a simpler couple played by Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. When Fiona is institutionalized, she transfers her affection to a fellow patient, as she forgets her husband. Most recently, Still Alice (2014) dealt with the impact of early onset Alzheimer’s on a family. All were pure tear-jerkers with hardly a shade of humor about the disease. But here comes What They Had, a film where once again the matriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s but doesn’t forget the odd irony of situations explored in the earlier films while giving us multi-dimensional, flawed characters that make up her family.
As Ruth, Blythe Danner does impressive work capturing the struggle against a lack of present mind while grasping at her slipping identity with halfhearted humor meant to comfort those around her. Robert Forster plays her long suffering husband who can’t bear to change their lives, even if it means that she wanders off into the snowy night. Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank are the offspring, Nick and Bridget, with enough experience in adulthood to understand what must be done for the health of their Mom yet still suffering parental righteousness under Dad’s thumb. Both struggle against that strange expectation aged parents always have that — even as adults — their spawn are still only children. It has disarmed any ability to convince Dad of what they think is best for Mom. One also can’t forget Taissa Farmiga as Bridget’s daughter Emma, who, though sidelined in all this, plays a pained observer with her own personal struggles with expectations and her lot in the family.
It’s a tricky path first-time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko walks, but she does so with an expertly crafted balance of humor and heartache. All the actors are up to the task, especially Shannon and Swank who executive produced the film. This isn’t an easy kind of film to pull off. It could have fallen over the edge of righteous sincerity or melodrama at any point, but every confrontation seems informed with lives well worn and lived-in. The actors give modulated performances that reveal how humor can bring everything from comfort to pain to such a lot. Meanwhile, peripheral matters, like Bridget’s fading love for her husband can’t seem to stand up against such devoted love between her parents, which her father hangs over her head at every opportunity. In the end, what they had was nothing but expectations, and what they found was the unforgiving mercy of time.
What They Had runs 101 minutes and is rated R. It is now playing in Miami-Dade exclusively MDC’s Tower Theater Miami(with Spanish subtitles) and in West Palm Beach at the FAU’s Living Room Theaters, Movies of Lake Worth and Movies of Delray 5. For dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Bleeker Street invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.