In the Shadow of Guardians: A Review of ‘Radiator’ and ‘My Old Lady’

“Radiator” screened at the London Film Festival October 2014, star rating: 4* directed by Tom Browne, due to be released in 2015

“My old lady” is currently in general release in the UK, star rating: 3*, directed by Israel Horovitz,

The Oxford dictionary defines the word “guardian” as ” a person who is legally responsible for the care of someone who is unable to manage their own affairs, especially a child whose parents have died”. Two new British films “Radiator” and “My old lady” explore the role reversal of a “guardian” in two families when children take over the caring role for their frail parents.

In “Radiator”, Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira) a Londoner returns to his family home in Cumbria to support his elderly mother Mariah (Gemma Jones) in caring for his father Leonard (Richard Johnson) who is becoming a real burden, he will not leave his settee in the living room, refuses to wash or change his clothes, and rejects any form of help or support from his GP or district nurses.

Both father and son have been long estranged; feelings of resentment and mistrust are rife and resurface following the son’s visit. Leonard views Daniel’s behaviour as an attempt from his son to be his “guardian”, and a way of his son feeling superior by “doing the right thing”. Daniel agonizes over his mother’s long silent suffering, and takes over the responsibility of caring for his father for a long weekend while mother visits a friend away from home. The enforced proximity brings back the old cycle of verbal and physical abuse between the two strong willed characters.

An unexpected turn of fate brings them even closer together when mother has a stroke and long term placement in a home needs to be considered for Leonard. In spite of its harsh depiction of the frailty of old age in its dependency and loss of dignity, the film still manages to bring a sense of light touch and humour in the fiery exchanges between father and son. Maintaining an Alan Bennett’s observant style of exploring the trials and tribulations of old age, the film brings to mind some of Bennett’s classic “Talking heads” such as “The cream cracker under the settee” and “Miss Fozzard finds her feet”.

The director sensitively handles a familiar story, making the viewer relate to this unfortunate family coming to terms with advancing age, loss and bereavement. Any viewer who has ever experienced an argument while caring for one of his/ her parents will possibly recognize some similar incidents from the storyline. The heartfelt emotional performance from all three lead actors adds a degree of authenticity and intimacy to the proceedings, credit goes to the superb direction by first time feature film director Tom Browne.
“My old lady” tells another family drama where hapless Mathias (Kevin Kline) inherits a flat in Paris following the death of his estranged father. He finds a shocking surprise in the shape of Mathilde (Maggie Smith) an elderly lady living in the flat. His father left the flat to Mathilde through a “viager”- a legal system in France where a resident is entitled to live in a house until their death, meaning that Mathias can legally possess the flat only after Mathilde’s death. Understandably a mistrust relationship develops between the two, and the situation is fuelled by Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) Mathilde’s daughter who also lives in the flat. While Mathilde imparts her worldly wisdom to Mathias on health, love and life, he occupies his time binging on alcohol and stealing her furniture to pay for his expenses.

Old secrets are revealed and family wounds are revisited through heated exchanges as it transpires that Mathilde and Mathias’s father had a secret affair. Mathias’s mother was aware of her husband’s adultery and suffered several mental breakdowns as a consequence, and Mathias never forgave his father for his mother’s suffering. In the midst of this emotionally charged atmosphere, Mathias and Chloe struggle to do the right thing by attending to Mathilde’s ill health, and try to find an excuse for their parents’ infidelity.

In a role reversal both Mathias and Chloe have now become the “physical and moral guardians” of their living and dead parents. The film is adapted from Israel Horovitz play; the staged theatrical influence remains obvious in the long talking scenes between the three fine actors. In spite of its predictable plot, and formulaic ending, the film is a reasonably handled portrayal of old age, and how family legacies can dictate the lives of grownups.

“Radiator” and “My old lady” are a welcome addition to the recent string of British films tackling old age such as “The best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, and “The hundred foot journey”. Both films explore with varying degrees of success the impact of parents communicating or not communicating with their children, and the long lasting effects of childhood memories on people’s bonds with their old parents.

In both films, there is a final note of hope that lived family experiences may have a positive influence on the way these traumatised souls lead their lives; Mathias and Chloe come to terms with life’s inevitable disappointments and come to appreciate that human beings are not perfect, while Daniel, reflecting on life with his parents, realises that it was not all “doom and gloom” and maybe some happy memories were there all along and these memories can be shared with his son.




Address for correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School,

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