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A tissue remained resolutely wedged up my sleeve for the duration of this well-acted, scrupulously polite American indie about a family coping with Alzheimer’s, which has met with ecstatic reviews, but left me a little cold. What We Had is the writing-directing debut of actor Elizabeth Chomko, with Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as siblings trying to persuade their dad that after a long, happy marriage it’s time for their mum to be moved into care home – or “memory centre” as the glossy brochure grimly puts it.
Swank is chef Bridget, who flies home to Chicago when her mother Ruth (Blythe Danner), who has dementia, is found wandering in the middle of night halfway across town during a snowstorm. Bridget’s brother, Nick (Shannon), thinks it’s time for professional care. Their dad, Burt (Robert Forster), flat out refuses to live apart from his wife. Who can feed and bathe her, tend to her memories better than he can? The intimacy between Burt and Ruth is gently moving: this old-school macho guy putting on marigolds to bleach his wife’s roots.
The script, inspired by Chomko’s grandparents’ marriage, throws up plenty of authentic-looking observations of life with Alzheimer’s. Like the hospital doctor, who with bland professional detachment, informs the family that Ruth has been given a pelvic examination because women with dementia are frequently sexually assaulted during wandering episodes. But the dialogue feels a little soapy in places, though brightened up with the occasional flash of humour.
And credit to the cast for adding substance. Danner gives a classy, restrained performance as Ruth, and it’s nice to see Shannon without a psychopathic scowl. But I could never quite believe in this family. And is it an emotional cop-out to write difficult scenes –such as Ruth making a pass at her son – but play them off-screen?
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: What They Had review – polite portrait of a family coping with Alzheimer’s | Drama films