Warning: this review contains spoilers.
I know that this movie’s supposed to be sad and that many people cried while watching it. I did cry too, but mine weren’t sad tears: They were tears of envy.
Let me explain why: This is the story of Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth): two men in their sixties who have been together for decades, always getting along splendidly, being best friends and lovers, never facing the smallest bump in the road, at least according to what director Harry Macqueen chooses to tell us and show us in his movie.
Their relationship is so perfect, that it looks surreal: I mean, to me this is a science fiction movie! I know a restricted number of people who are in a happy, fulfilling relationship, but they ALL, at some point, had to overcome challenges, deal with misunderstandings and resentment, make compromises and so on. No happy couple, whether they’re gay or straight, sails peacefully through life never having to weather a storm.
Well, this couple has and that’s probably why this major illness (Tusker is diagnosed with early dementia) catches them totally unprepared.
Their extraordinary relationship alone would already label them as extremely lucky even if they had regular jobs and were struggling to pay their bills, BUT no, they don’t even have to deal with that: Sam is a famous professional pianist and Tusker’s a bestselling author. So, they not only had the idyllic relationship every person with common sense would dream of, but they did what they loved for a living and got extremely wealthy because of it.
They’re also two mature gay men who’ve totally been accepted by Sam’s upper class family, adding to this story’s fantasy element: Why? Well, for a start, homosexuality was ILLEGAL in England until 1967. Since Firth and Tucci play characters their age, it’s safe to say that they were 7-8 when being gay got decriminalized and, at least Sam (and his sister), was therefore raised by parents who grew-up believing that homosexuals weren’t only sinners but PLAIN CRIMINALS. Still, Sam’s family didn’t bat an eye when he came out, they’re all super-welcoming and understanding, to a point that they keep hugging Sam and Tusker and one another, which again is pure science fiction, because in England we don’t do hugs, especially the upper classes hate physical contacts with anyone, including their own kids. You get even more perplexed, when you learn that Sam’s folks come from the Lake District, in Northern England and we all know that, even nowadays, in the UK, the Northern you go, the more people are open-minded and progressive (spoiler alert: they are NOT).
As for the way dementia is represented, the director/writer Macqueen clearly knows absolutely nothing of it, never dealt with it, nor cared to speak with people who had loved ones battling this terrible disease.
Dementia is tricky and doesn’t nearly progress as quickly as it is shown in the movie, especially when the patient is still relatively young, like Tusker, and it’s caught early. For Tusker not to be able to write anymore (he’s become unable to recognize the letters) the disease should have been there for years and years, not been recent as it’s hinted in the movie. Dementia can be kept at bay for years, then suddenly get worse, then retreat again: it’s not a linear disease like other types of neurological illnesses or certain cancers, it goes up a long and winding road, like the Beatles would say, making it very difficult to plan and make decisions about the future because, again, patients can be OK, even almost asymptomatic for months or YEARS, enjoying their life until they wake-up one day, not knowing where they are. Also, generally speaking (and I know it out of personal experience) even once they’re terminal, they still recognize their close loved-ones, like their kids or their partner. There are other neurological diseases, including brain cancer, which progress very fast and produce the same symptoms Tusker has, but dementia isn’t one of them and representing it this way is misleading.
At a point, Tusker claims that in a few months he won’t know who Sam is, therefore he wants to commit suicide while he’s still himself. He wants to die as an independent man, doesn’t want to lose control and become a burden to Sam who, on the other hand, would be more than happy to take care of him during his last months (which, in real life, would actually be YEARS, at least TEN).
Sam finds out about Tusker’s plans and, although at first he’s of course against, then he gets on board with the whole thing literally OVER DINNER. There’s no anger, no resentment, no confusion, no angst, no real fear, not even about Tusker failing his attempt and ending up a vegetable, no! They talk for like five minutes and he’s sold, which sounds totally preposterous, especially since Tusker plans to DIE THE NEXT DAY! Yes, you heard me.
And the next day, after a failed attempt at making love one last time (why?), Sam/Colin goes playing his gig, knowing that Tusker/Stanley will kill himself in the meantime. And let’s be honest here: unless one’s a psychopath, there’s no way you can hold a concert and concentrate on playing while knowing that, AT THE SAME TIME, the love of your life is killing himself at home. Again, you don’t perceive any real conflict here, everything runs so smoothly, that it’s surreal (I mean, is this an episode of Wanda Vision or what?).
THE FATHER, with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, depicts a much more realistic picture of dementia, showing us an older patient who rejects the diagnosis and a daughter who, although wealthy and able to pay for a nurse, cannot afford to stop working and must find a suitable carer for her dad before she moves to Paris. She has no choice but moving, she loves her father and wants him to be all right IN SPITE OF ALL THE CONFLICTS THEY HAD IN THE PAST (and still have in the present); her dad, on the other hand, has no intention to commit suicide and relieve her from his cumbersome presence, no! He wants to live and alone, since he denies he’s even ill. That creates of course a lot of angst, fear, resentment etc: director Florian Zeller knows dementia from the inside and knows what it does to people who do not have the option to drop everything and go to Provence or Italy, like Sam suggests at a point, to convince Tusker not to die. And don’t even get me started talking about old people having to take care of older parents or spouses; don’t get me started on couples who hate each other and find themselves in Sam’s and Tusker’s situation. Don’t get me started on people who have no money for nurses, carers and even homes where to put their loved ones, barely making ends meet with their lousy jobs! That’s when things get ugly FOR REAL and true love is really tested, not when you’re two rich guys wandering in the British country side while staring nostalgic into emptiness with piano music in the background.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Firth and Tucci are BEYOND AWESOME in this movie, they’re two outstanding actors, so good, that I’d watch them read the telephone book: but they’re kind of wasted in this rushed movie that only scratches the surfaces of human behavior and relationships.