- 01 Mar 19
Understated exploration of alzheimer's effects on a family
With a cause as mysterious as its impact is devastating, Alzheimer’s disease is not new. But as life expectancies rise, it is a growing issue, and we are slowly but surely beginning to see it dramatised onscreen in Away From Her and Still Alice. However, while What They Had shows Ruth (Blythe Danner) suffering from the disease – wandering away from home in the middle of the night and losing track of what decade she’s in – the film focuses on her family members, who vehemently disagree on how to care for her.
Her stubborn and spiky son Nick (Michael Shannon) believes she should be placed in a local care facility. Husband Burt (Robert Forster) is loving and in denial, insisting she belongs at home with him. And ever-responsible, people-pleasing daughter Bridget (Hillary Swank) just wants to keep the peace, as always – even though her own family life is falling apart.
Writer and director Elizabeth Chomko based What They Had on her own family’s experiences, and the relationships have the nuance of real life. With unflashy polish, Chomko shows how even healthy people can regress when reunited in the family home, becoming trapped in memories and reverting to old dynamics. But as the three adults contemplate their future, there’s a dawning realisation that new patterns may be needed.
Humour, sarcasm and deflection are the family’s self-preservational tools of choice, though Chomko is careful not to make the script affectedly witty.
The performances are understated but effective, with Shannon and Forster in particular carving out a complex and rocky chemistry. Swank becomes the film’s sympathetic centre, as a woman who has always done what’s right for others, but has no idea how to do the same for herself.
Though the final act becomes predictably sentimental, it’s the smaller, more subtle observations that linger.