‘To age or not to age- that is the question’- review of The Carer – 5*
UK, Hungary, 2016, directed by János Edelényi
Starring: Brian Cox, Coco Konig, Emilia Fox, and Roger Moore
In general release in the UK cinemas from 5th August 2016
Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room Editor
Watching The Carer at its European premier in Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2016, I was strongly reminded of the ‘mirror neuron’ theory which postulates the ‘firing of a neuron in an observer that is exactly firing in the brain of another person performing a particular action- (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron). The eminent Italian neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese argues that ‘mirror neurons’ explain the underlying ‘emotions of empathy with film characters’ that viewers experience when watching a film. In ‘Neurocinematic science’, film audience engages fully and connects with ‘life unfolding on the silver screen’ in an ‘Embodied simulation’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mirror-neurons-and-why-we_b_3239534).
I had a strong sense of understanding and relating to the trials and tribulations of Sir Michael Gifford (Brian Cox) a veteran Shakespearean theatre actor who is suffering from the unkind advance of old age. Recurrent falls due to early Parkinson’s disease is one of many daily humiliations; bowel and bladder accidents, forgetfulness, bad temper and isolation in his country mansion are few others. His daughter, Sophia (Emilia Fox) recognizes the urgent need for a 24 hour ‘carer’ to help with his daily activities. Dorottya (Coco Konig), a young Hungarian refugee, a carer in a nearby nursing home, is offered the job of caring for him after a grilling interview by Sophia. Unbeknown to everyone, Dorottya is a young amateur actress aspiring to join the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Living with Sir Gifford is not ‘a walk in the park’; she has to survive the daily challenges; language barriers are insignificant compared to his snobbery, arrogance, and cantankerous behavior.
Slowly the two find a common ground in Shakespearean plays; one of the most moving scenes is when Dorottya helps Sir Michael after an embarrassing bowel accident by quoting Shakespeare while cleaning him up. Outings to the local pub and an impromptu visit to the nursing home where Dorottya used to work, and performing scenes from ‘King Lear’ to the residents strengthen the bond between them. Their burgeoning fondness for each other is met with suspicion from his daughter, and old time friend and manager Milly (Anna Chancellor). The inevitable confrontation between Sir Gifford, Dorottya and his family happens when he insists on accepting a lifetime achievement award which will be broadcast live on national TV. His family and private physician, Dr Satterthwaite (Andrew Havill) are seriously worried that he will subject himself to national mockery if he falls over or forgets his lines in the live awards ceremony. Collectively they dismiss his capacity to make decisions and hold him hostage in his mansion. What follows is a delightful and powerful testament to the resilience of old age fuelled by creativity and a touch of recklessness.
Never before have the four Giants of Geriatric Medicine, a term coined by Bernard Isaacs (1924-1995) (http://www.bgs.org.uk/index.php/geriatricmedicinearchive/203-biographies/2220-a-giant-of-geriatric-medicine-professor-bernard-isaacs-1924-1995) , been so poignantly portrayed in film; falls, immobility, incontinence and confusion are so masterfully played by Brian Cox, CBE, in a tour-de-force performance.
In today’s world where ageing is viewed negatively as a ‘demographic time bomb, and a financial burden’ it is refreshing to find a film where ageing is not a ‘curse’. Intergenerational dependency is sensitively handled; Dorottya teaching Sir Gifford how to use a mobile phone while he teaches her how to hone her acting skills is a master-stroke. Nurturing creativity and embracing new technology can contribute to the well-being of both the older person as well as their carers.
In addition to its genuine exploration of ‘physical and psychological health in old age’, the film also manages to handle other serious issues such as ‘Capacity in senior citizens’; where time and time again families and doctors neglect the wishes of an older person claiming they are ‘acting in their best interests’ as an excuse for not seeking their opinion.
In a film exploring the world of a retired Shakespearean actor, a plethora of ‘quotable one liners’ is to be expected. However the final speech has to be repeatedly viewed to appreciate its nuance, wisdom and playfulness. Another fact the film masterfully puts forward is the notion that ‘old people are neither angels nor demons’ they are not aliens, they are similar to younger generations as fellow human beings struggling with everyday life, trying to make the best of difficult times and circumstances.
The frustration of the motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is keenly observed; an eye-opener for doctors and other professionals caring for people with Parkinson’s disease.
The film is a ‘labour of love’- from its writers Tom Kinninmont, the late Gilbert Adair, and director János Edelényi. Targeting primarily an ‘older audience’, The Carer might well be 2016 sleeper hit that attracts a wider audience from all age groups; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel meets Quartet meets Youth. Watching The Carer, I was convinced that ‘mirror neurons’ exist and explain the strong emotions of empathy I experienced with the characters on the silver screen. I was reminded once more that films have the power to ‘teach doctors how to communicate with and care for patients, their families and carers’.
To see a trailer of the film: http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi3754669081/
Podcast of interview with writer Tom Kinninmont:
Address for correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali, Khalid.firstname.lastname@example.org