This film's drama operates on two levels: the psychological and the political.
The more obvious, the psychological, depicts the mental and physical deterioration of the principle couple, John and Ella respectively.
The emotional wallop comes from the pathos, realism and nuance especially in John's dementia, as he slips in and out of memory and awareness. Ella subordinates her terminal illness to holding him together on their valedictory trip. As he excavates his own past his suspicion of Ella's ostensible infidelity gives way to his unwitting exposure of his own. The couple shift through a series of fleeting harmonies and tensions before peacefully ending together. As Ella told her daughter, "It's just something I really need to do with your father."
The audience of their contemporaries can take some solace from noting that unlike their diminishing characters, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are still working and delivering marvellous performances. They don't act their characters' age.
Through all of John's and Ella's miseries, perhaps the saddest figure is Lilian, their neighbour, with whom John had a fling during Ella's pregnancy. In the God's eye view of the couple's funeral, Lilian walks away alone, the challenger to the couple's bliss who failed to come between them.
But the drama has a parallel dimension, that reflects beyond the characters to the current United States. The film is so pervasively American that it's easy to miss the fact that it has an Italian director and European producers. This is a European vision of America.
Here the dementia afflicts not just John but America. Like John, America has forgotten the values and character that made it great - specifically in the 1960s. In Trump's election and in his presidency America has forgotten itself.
Hence the 60s soundtrack of political and head lyrics. The film opens on one Trump rally. At a later one John loses himself, forgets he's a lifelong Democrat and dons a Trump/Pence pin. Of course Trump's "great" America is that which the 60s revolution replaced, with its exercise of freedoms, its assault on racism and sexual bigotry and its rejection of traditional politics.
Indeed the couple's transport of delight is "The Leisure Seeker," another echo of the spirit and freedom of the Woodstock days.
Hence the crucial casting of Donald Sutherland as the old intellectual hipster who is losing his grip on himself and on reality. The Canadian actor became an icon of the 60s American cultural revolution with films like Joanna, MASH, Start the Revolution Without Me, Alex in Wonderland, Steelyard Blues, Gas and Don't Look Now. His work with Bertolucci and Felljni emblematized the European revolution as well.
Helen Mirren reverses that movement. She buries her British persona in her Georgia belle, equally parallelling Vivien Leigh's ascent in Gone with the Wind and the Beatles' and Carnaby Street's cultural conquest of America.
The other crucial casting is of Dick Gregory, the comedian/writer leader of the African American revolution of the day, as Ella's crochety, invalid ex-boyfriend. He doesn't remember her, their affair, his past life, but he remains properly enraged at America's resurgent racism and the intrusion of his forgotten past.
The two young diner waitresses provide a related contrast. The white waitress is uneducated, has memorized her lines in service and politely tolerates John's lecture on the poetry of Hemingway's prose. The Florida waitress is prettier, more poised, and she fills in John's forgotten Hemingway quote, She did an honours paper on him. But she's African American so despite her education, wit and poise, she's still a waitress.
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