At my age I can really relate to this poignant comedy movie, which is about Ella and John Spencer, an endearing elderly couple from Massachusetts inflicted with terminal illnesses. Ella has been having debilitating chemo treatment that to her is worse than the cancer she has been suffering from. John on the other hand has progressive dementia, something we old ones fear more than death. Then one day without informing Jane or Will, their grown-up controlling children, they drive off in the old family camper van, nicknamed the Leisure Seeker, for what will be their last holiday. What follows is a series of comic adventures mixed with moments of sheer joy, panic and sadness.
The route is a familiar one taking them to South Carolina where Ella spent her early years. Helen Mirren, who played her, spoke with the perfect southern belle accent. The ultimate destination was to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys. He was John’s favourite author and taught his work to college students in his younger days. Donald Sutherland had the role of John, who with Mirren created the perfect picture of a couple totally devoted to one another. John does all the driving while Ella does all the talking incessantly! Each evening after they’ve park up for the night Ella tests John’s memory by showing him photos of the past using the faithful old carousel slide projector. She becomes agitated when he can’t remember many of their shared experiences from the past and yearns to have her soul mate back.
There is plenty of lovable and humorous moments scattered about the movie. My favourite is when they have to deal with a couple of young road bandits, although having a loaded shotgun above the dashboard should not be encouraged. Sometimes John doesn’t know where he is and has a tendency to wander off on his own causing Ella to commandeer unsuspecting bystanders to help her find him.
Their middle aged children are not amused by the disappearance of their parents with Will being overly distraught and begging over the phone for them to return, but to no avail. It seemed pretty obvious from the beginning that they will not be returning home, at least not alive. With Ella stopping treatment and knowing that her cancer is terminal, and John the intellectual professor, becoming more forgetful by the day whilst losing control of his bodily functions, they are going to end life on their own terms. Although Ella is a very formidable and some times dominating woman, John in his more lucid moments has made clear he doesn’t want to end up in what he calls a human warehouse; his term for a residential nursing home. He even tells Ella exactly how, with her help, the way he wishes to end his life. His proposal is too messy for Ella as it might stain the carpet. This was to be their final journey and they would make it together.
Ironically due to his difficulty in matching faces to names, John inadvertently reveals he had a brief affair with Lillian, their next-door neighbour, while Ella was pregnant with daughter Jane, a human warehouse becomes his punishment. An angry and hurt Ella takes him to the nearest old peoples’ home and tells the staff there he’s now theirs. Overnight of course she realises that John is the centre of her universe and she his, so it’s back to the nursing home to rescue him from a fate worse than death. Back on the road and before reaching their destination they share a moment of total contentment as arm in arm they look out on a calm sea. After an eventful visit to Hemingway’s house, which had been turned into a tacky tourist attraction, it’s time for the end game, which had been well planned in advance by Ella. Sitting at the table regaled in her well-groomed wig, she writes a goodbye letter to their children as if it’s a note to the milkman to leave an extra pint.
The main characters in the movie are completely believable due to the splendid performances given by Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. There is a similar underlying theme in this movie to “Is Anyone There” in which Michael Caine plays an old has been magician who has outlived his usefulness to society. We can expect more movies along similar lines as a fast growing number of older citizens face end of life issues, and society struggles with the financial consequences of herding them into human warehouses.