The Leisure Seeker: Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren well below their best

Review: The film is a long, slow Winnebago ride to a cold, cold grave

The Leisure Seeker
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Director: Paolo Virzì
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins

Paolo Virzì's grey-pound drama distinguishes itself in at least one regard. It's some achievement to make a film about the twilight years that oozes bogus sentimentality while still being every bit as depressing as Michael Haneke's unflinching Amour. There's supposed to be a trade-off here. We wave goodbye to integrity and, in exchange, get reassuring lies about seniors swearing merrily on mobility scooters. Does The Golden Girls mean nothing to you?

There is some of that stuff here. Barely easing her mechanism into autopilot, Helen Mirren gets to wave a shotgun at unconvincing muggers – "Hey, don't be such a drag, Daddyo!" they almost say – and Donald Sutherland, rarely unequivocally awake, shows that he's still "got an eye for the ladies", but, for the most part, The Leisure Seeker comprises a long, slow Winnebago ride to a cold, cold grave. You, at least, get attractive monochrome footage of Nordic lakes in similarly pitched Ingmar Bergman films.

We begin with John Spencer (Sutherland), a retired Massachusetts English teacher, and Ella Spencer, (Mirren), his militantly southern wife, hopping into their recreational vehicle – nicknamed The Leisure Seeker – and making for distant Florida. John is a great fan of Ernest Hemmingway (this dates him more pointedly than any prostate issues) and longs to visit that writer's home in Key West. Ella is a great fan of John and is prepared to endure his endlessly drippy commentary on mid-century literature if it ends with him achieving his dream.

Narrative tension

Time is an issue. John has dementia and Ella has the strain of Fatal Movie Disease that causes sufferers to press handkerchiefs to mouths at points of highest narrative tension.


Their grown-up children are appalled. Will (Christian McKay), an estate agent who may have repressed his homosexuality, huffs and puffs like the snooty next-door neighbour in a 1970s British sitcom. Jane (Janel Moloney), a professor, perhaps the parents’ favourite, does a better job of keeping her panic in check.

Early on, we are offered suggestions that political background noise may add original character to the familiar road-movie tropes. Before the Spencers have got into gear, we hear Carol King's It's Too Late while a Trump/Pence campaign vehicle menaces its way through the neighbourhood. At a first stop for food, Hillary speaks on a background TV. The campaign is then almost entirely ignored.

The one exception is a ludicrous scene that finds a confused John caught up in a Trump rally bursting with under-enthused extras chanting “USA! USA! USA!” It is staged as badly as an SNL sketch, but without even the thin tissue of satire that show still occasionally manages.

The film seems frightened of glossing the image of a man with dementia enjoying a Trump rally. Are they frightened of Trump fans? Are they frightened of dementia activists?

Serious worries

Those who study that condition may have more serious worries about the script’s cavalier approach to John’s final decline. Much of the film deals fairly and honestly with the frustrations that memory loss can bring to patients and partners.

But, when the plot demands it, the disease suddenly grants supernatural recall. Late on, John spontaneously acts out a scene from his past in order to forward a closing narrative crisis. That’s really not how dementia works.

The picture would be close to unbearable without the presence of Sutherland and Mirren. Neither is anywhere near his or her best.

Dame Helen works harder at camping up her southern accent than she does at making sense of Ella’s erratic motivations. Sutherland seems uninterested in teasing out the inner shreds of his character’s personality. But they get by on being themselves. If that’s enough for you then knock yourself out.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist