The long goodbye: has cinema finally learned how to depict dementia?

New films such as The Father and Supernova reveal both the sorrow and the disorienting strangeness of life with dementia.

22 June 2021

By Guy Lodge

Supernova (2020)
Sight and Sound

Supernova is in cinemas from 25 June. The Father is in cinemas now. Relic is streaming on Shudder. Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

Anyone who has lived through the dementia of a loved one knows that it’s a long goodbye, a cumulative loss.

As the afflicted person endures its ravages – gradually shedding memories of the world around them in frustrating piecemeal fashion – the process presents few opportunities for cathartic emotional release. Even death often brings a dull kind of relief for the grieving.

That makes it a difficult condition to dramatise on film. It doesn’t progress in neat, escalating acts, yet there’s a surreal undertow to this everyday condition – the sense of living in a separate reality even from those nearest you – that keeps attracting filmmakers all the same.

The results tend to be tasteful and streamlined, often working principally as showcases for fine actors playing out wrenching mental anguish to impressive effect. Julianne Moore, Henry Fonda, Meryl Streep, Julie Christie, Emmanuelle Riva and Judi Dench are among the stars who have earned themselves Oscar attention for doing so, sometimes in quite anodyne films, creating the unfortunate impression that dementia is an easy go-to for prestige drama.

The Father (2020)

In the last year, however, a rush of dementia-centred films has offered a bracing variety of formal approaches to a subject too often treated with beige kid gloves.

Sure enough, one of them won a couple of Oscars, including one for a great actor gruellingly enacting the cruel effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet little else about Florian Zeller’s remarkable debut The Father follows form.

A rare attempt to convey the psychological disorientation of dementia from the inside out, it adopts the point of view of Anthony Hopkins’s affected protagonist Anthony as he grapples with memory loss, while his daughter and carer Anne (Olivia Colman) melds into a fluid, blurring ensemble of secondary figures whose identities he (and in turn, we) can’t quite pin down.

Though adapting his own stage play, Zeller finds a cinematic language for Anthony’s fugue: the rhythm of the editing switches, and the compact production design shape-shifts as his mind seizes, short-circuits and doubles back on itself.

(Beside it, the restless temporal back-and-forth of Sally Potter’s earnest but turgid father-daughter dementia story The Roads Not Taken, released to minimal fanfare last year, feels more prosaic.)

Relic (2020)

You’d almost call The Father a horror film, if not for the more visceral genre stylings of Natalie Erika James’s Relic, another first feature that premiered alongside The Father at Sundance last year, and has since gathered a less mainstream audience for its unnerving depiction of a household unravelled by mental unravelling.

Probing how an elderly Australian matriarch’s dementia preys on her daughter and granddaughter as well as herself, James’s film is not unlike Zeller’s in its articulation of the condition through unreliable perspective and changeable physical space. Its sharp tilt into haunted-house metaphor and body horror was never going to gain the approval of squeamish awards voters, but it’s a bold step forward in tackling the disease’s more savage, dissociative realities.

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

Other recent films have taken a less brutal view, without feeling less honest for it. In her exquisitely intimate documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020), director Kirsten Johnson doesn’t just find wry gallows humour in her own father’s evolving dementia, but invites him in on the bittersweet joke. Together, they envisage and rehearse an assortment of scenarios for his death and afterlife, making a virtue of dementia’s agonisingly indefinite timeline, while also acting as an urgent, in-the-moment diary of his changing consciousness.

The anxious uncertainty of things to come also hovers over the sporadic tender joys of British director Harry Macqueen’s lovely Supernova (2020), which narrows its focus to early-onset dementia. American writer Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is just beginning to experience mental decline, prompting a rambling Lake District road trip with his partner Sam (Colin Firth) as they gently but tensely debate how to live with his impending deterioration.

Some critics have accused Macqueen’s lyrical, conversation-driven film of being too sanitised, sidestepping the uglier realities of Tusker’s future, though that rather misses its point – to zero in on a fragile, potentially brief precipice stage, where someone with dementia can still determine his future, and converse candidly with others about it.

Supernova (2020)

Still, the cosy-knitwear-and-country-house comforts of Supernova do highlight a commonality even among this new, more diversely told spate of dementia dramas: a consistent focus on the white middle class, where the trauma of the condition is at least supported by plush, roomy interiors, the fretful presence of caring family, and the money to take care of worse eventualities.

We’ve seen comparatively few films about how dementia affects the poor, oppressed and alone, as if the mental angst it imposes is quite enough for a character – and screenwriter – to contend with. Expect that, too, to change as this most universal, undiscriminating of subjects evolves on screen.

Further reading

Relic finds fear in a labyrinthine house of horrors – and in intergenerational illness

By Anton Bitel

Relic finds fear in a labyrinthine house of horrors – and in intergenerational illness

Dick Johnson Is Dead: resurrections beat the blues

By Hannah McGill

Dick Johnson Is Dead: resurrections beat the blues

Supernova burns with love at the last

By Jessica Kiang

Supernova burns with love at the last

The Roads Not Taken review: Sally Potter grapples with the power of the past

By Violet Lucca

The Roads Not Taken review: Sally Potter grapples with the power of the past

The Father is a painfully potent depiction of mental deterioration

By Matthew Taylor

The Father is a painfully potent depiction of mental deterioration

Better caring through documentary?

By Sophie Brown

Better caring through documentary?

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