Richard Smith: The Closer We Get

richard_smith_2014The Closer We Get shows the last months of a woman’s life after she has had a stroke and tells the complex story of a family as they gather around the mother. It’s an intense film that held my attention for every one of its 87 minutes, much more so than The Lobster and Suffragette, both of which I’ve seen in the past week. There’s much to be learnt in the film by health workers and, indeed, by everybody.

I went with my wife to see the film because the director, Karen Guthrie, had contacted me about using the film to promote discussions. I thought that the discussions were to be about death and dying and that therefore that would be the subject of the film. So the film would be about getting closer to death, and in some ways it is. But the title is clever in that it’s also about a fractured family coming closer as the mother, who has had a stroke, gets closer to death; and of course we are all getting closer to death every minute of our lives.

Karen began with the idea of making a film about her mother and her touring Africa—like Thelma and Louise—to discover their past. She filmed her mother to start the making of the film. Three weeks later her mother had a severe stroke, and the result was a very different film. In some ways it was a film about Karen caring for her mother, who needed everything done for her but was still alert and could talk.

I’d strongly advise you to watch the film, and if you think that you’ll be able to then read no further as I’m going to write about what happens—and your enjoyment of the film will be increased if you don’t know. It’s a strong story full of revelations.

Keren’s father is also there in the house in Largs, and we quickly learn that he has returned after being away for 15 years to help care for his wife (we later learn that she is not his wife, although she was). Both mother and father have a strong and mostly black sense of humour. The father is resilient but self-centred, yet caring for his ex-wife. The mother is a philosopher, turned into one by the vicissitudes of her life.

We begin to learn the story of Karen’s family. Both her father and mother were capable and attractive when they met, and all went well as they had four children, all of whom gained university degrees. But one day, when Karen was a teenager, her father couldn’t stand it anymore: he took a job in Africa and just left. Communications were sparse, but he did return twice a year for a few weeks. Karen’s mother had to bring up the children on her own.

The next surprise was that we learnt that Karen’s father had had a son, Campbell, while in Ethiopia. We see a much younger and rather awkward looking Karen sat on a sofa with a five year old Campbell. He became part of the Scottish family, and Karen learned to love him. Her mother found it more difficult and felt badly that she did. In the Q and A after the film Karen said that her brothers too had found it hard. At around the same time that Campbell appeared Karen’s sister had a mixed race child; she too became part of the family.

We understood that this was a complex—but far from unique—family. The father sat at his computer learning Arabic, while Karen looked after her mother, and her disconsolate brother for whom life had “gone awry” played his guitar in his room.

The next piece of drama was that Karen’s father announced that he was going to Ethiopia for two months, to see his woman there. He left. Perhaps he would never see his ex-wife again. He didn’t seem to dwell on that possibility. There was a sense of him repeating history. We see him leaving from Largs station in the rain. Lots of shots of rain follow. The West of Scotland is wet, Ethiopia is dry. Rain and tears go together.

We see Karen’s brother playing with his guitar. There’s an email from Dad, says Karen. What’s his news? He’s got married. Another surprise; he has a gift for them.

Karen decides she must go to Ethiopia, stating that unlike her mother she has the money and independence to do so. We see her arrive in what looks like a shack in Ethiopia. Karen meets her father’s wife, her stepmother. The wife speaks no English, but through togetherness and shared food they establish some rapport. There is no judgement from Karen, but in Ethiopia and back in Scotland she asks her father questions she’s never asked before. He gives short answers.

We wonder if Karen’s father will return to Scotland, but he does. We see him carrying his suitcase through the grey streets. Then the film accelerates. The climax is Karen asking her mother about happiness. I wish I could remember the exact words of her mother’s response, but I can’t. She had known happiness; she had accepted what she had to accept. We see Karen’s mother in hospital, but we don’t see her end. Instead we see pictures of grandchildren: life goes on. When the film ends we see that Karen’s mother died in 2013.

Weren’t you angry with your father, asks a questioner after the film ends. No, answers Karen. There was screeching in the past, but what would be the point? Who would want to watch a film in which she savaged her father? Shouldn’t there be more raw emotion, more shouting and screaming, if you want a commercially successful film, asked another questioner. There was emotion, lots of it—but it was contained; it’s the Scottish way. What did her family think of the film? They all liked it; her father answered questions at another showing and enjoyed the attention.

This was a more remarkable family story than most, but all family stories are remarkable in some way. The story of Karen’s family lit up many connections. My wife thought of her mother dying of a stroke. I thought of my grandfather who led my grandmother a merry dance when young, but then cared for her beautifully when she became old and demented.

Karen said that the film for her, a very personal film, was a legacy of what was a very special time. The time was most important, but the film is a wonderful extra.

May we all at the end of our lives come closer and experience redemption. It’s another argument against sudden death.

The Closer We Get is showing at Picturehouse Central in London in London until 12 November, and you can get more information on screenings from the film’s website.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004. He is now chair of the board of trustees of icddr,b [formerly International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh], and chair of the board of Patients Know Best. He is also a trustee of C3 Collaborating for Health.

Competing interests: None declared.