Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland in The Leisure Seeker.

Photo: Supplied

M, 108 minutes

It's a genre – films depicting old age as the last great adventure.

Helen Mirren's Ella Spencer grew up in the south, which gives Mirren a chance to adopt the accent, along with a garrulous charm.

Photo: Supplied


They're poised on a spectrum ranging from mordant comedy to melancholy realism. At the happy end of it are The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, while The Leisure Seeker leans towards the mournful – although it does come with a generous helping of black jokes.

The main attraction lies in watching its leads, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, lay aside the comforts of stardom to play people grappling with the prosaic humiliations of inhabiting two failing bodies as they proceed to the exit with as much dignity as possible.

The director is Paolo Virzi. One of Italy's brightest directing talents, he's known for Human Capital, about a wealthy Milanese family and the damage caused by their highly elastic standards of morality, and Like Crazy, the story of two women who take off from a mental institution in Tuscany to go on the road.

A similar spirit of rebellion animates Ella Spencer (Mirren) when she decides that she and her husband, John (Sutherland), should take off for one last holiday in their vintage campervan nicknamed the Leisure Seeker. She doesn't tell their son and daughter, who would do everything possible to stop them because John has dementia and Ella, we gradually discover, has cancer.

The script is an adaptation of a novel by Michael Zadoorian, but Virzi and his collaborators have altered it, turning John into an academic and changing their itinerary to point south to Key West and the house where Ernest Hemingway once lived.

John may have trouble keeping a grip on the here and now but he can recall large slabs of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. He also delights in delivering impromptu lectures on the austere beauties of its prose to waitresses in roadside diners.

He's a New Englander while Ella grew up in the south, which gives Mirren a chance to adopt the accent, along with a garrulous charm which camouflages a formidable will. Ella is a force and she's determined to use this trip to give form and shape to the life that she and John have shared.

Sutherland's performance encompasses a series of personalities. At times, John is like a petulant child, at others a genial, avuncular presence puzzled by the fact that he's not where he thought he was. Most poignant are the flashes of his old self – rational and in command. When this character appears, Mirren responds with a joy that makes it all the more painful when, a moment later, he lapses back into blankness.

John may have trouble keeping a grip on the here and now but he can recall large slabs of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.

We get glimpses of their past. In the caravan parks where they spend their nights, she rigs up a makeshift screen to project slides stretching back to their early years together and in an effort to reboot his memory, quizzes him on the people and places they show. And there's something dreamlike about these images floating in the night sky, as if the past were out there, waiting to be reclaimed.

But there's a risk, as well, as she discovers when he wakes up one morning unable to recognise her as the young and beautiful woman he married.

Towards the end, Virzi gets a little too cute. He says that he and his regular collaborators worked on the screenplay before consulting his friend the American novelist Stephen Amidon on idiom and nuance. And there are a few bumpy transitions between tragedy and black humour when Mirren is required to become just too histrionic. Otherwise, she strikes few false notes. And Sutherland's performance maintains a haunting plausibility.

It's a predictable scenario. It can't be anything else. But these two great talents invest it with humanity and courage in the face of its inescapable home truths.

Sandra Hall

Sandra Hall is the author of two novels (A Thousand Small Wishes and Beyond the Break), two histories of the Australian television industry (Supertoy and Turning On, Turning Off) and Tabloid Man, a biography of Ezra Norton, the man who established Truth and The Daily Mirror. She was film critic at The Bulletin magazine prior to joining The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.

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