Seek and Ye Shall Find

By Jason Solomons

We shouldn’t be afraid of sentiment. Not very British, I know, but a good cry every now and then does the power of good. That’s why I loved The Leisure Seeker. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as a 70-something married couple, Ella and John, who, one morning, take off in the family’s old Winnebago, the eponymous leisure Seeker – much to the horror of their grown-up children, who discover the missing camper van, for so long stationed like a leviathan in the garage, and worry it’s even creakier than their folks.

Well, they’re as bone-rattling as each other. Sutherland, with his magnificent silver mane and snow leopard eyes, plays a former literature professor now in the throes of Alzheimer's; Mirren is his long-suffering, faded Southern Belle of a wife, now popping pills to combat various aches she won’t elaborate on.
Together, they hit the road, starting out from Boston in Massachusetts and vaguely headed to the South, with his hero Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys the ultimate destination. Various shenanigans ensue, meeting strangers at campsites, chats with diner waitresses, run-ins with cops, chance encounters with old students and revelations unfurl, secrets wrapped up in a wheel of old family slide photos.

Mirren and Sutherland aren’t a natural pair, which makes their casting as the incumbents of a cranky, loving and long marriage all the more delicious. Sutherland, in particular, is wonderful, the twinkle in his eye fading to a blank stare before sparking up again. What I liked is the film’s refusal to be coy. it knows what it’s doing and where it’s going, and it doesn’t shirk its duty. This is a film about dying and, full of life, it heads straight towards the abyss. it’s directed by an Italian, Paolo Virzi, who clearly knows where the heartstrings are and how to pluck them.

And then there are the kids, Christian McKay and Janel Moloney, left fretting and wondering back at the house, stressing about what they’ve
done wrong and how to get their parents back. Their scenes are crucial because this film is about people who don’t want to come back. They’ve done their parenting and much more besides, and
they still want to do things their way. it’s about caring and trusting, about letting go and not finding blame but looking instead for beauty and dignity.

Look, I know not everyone loves this film. Some of my critical colleagues have snorted with cold contempt. They can be a heartless bunch. But it’s too easy to forget how sad and moving films can be when they’re not too worried about the brain but make a beeline straight for the heart. Director Virzi doesn’t overcomplicate or pretty things up with elaborate shots or with too much cinematic fussing. He’s a romantic sort of filmmaker, and one with a big, soulful embrace, so he lets great actors get on with it and, occasionally, gives them more room than they need to let rip with the histrionics and the
warmth. it’s great to watch, but also tough, at just the right moments.

And, like that titular leisure Seeker, the wheels keep on turning and the film jollies along, always taking time to smell the roses, admire the views and remember what loving someone is all about.