Helen Mirren never wanted to do a ‘getting older’ film – she even warned her agent never to show her a script involving dementia or cancer – so was ready to say no to a role in new film The Leisure Seeker.
But the movie plot deals with the realities that confront every Baby Boomer so naturally and in such a life-affirming way that she was convinced to sign up to the movie, and audiences will be very glad she did.
The Leisure Seeker centres on a couple, John and Ella Spencer, who decide to take one last trip in their beloved campervan before John’s Alzheimer’s disease makes the journey impossible. Ella, meanwhile has chosen to stop receiving treatment for a serious illness and is grappling with her own mortality.
Mirren is near-unrecognisable in a brown wig and glasses as 80-something Ella, while veteran actor Donald Sutherland is by turns sharp as a tack and hopelessly confused as retired professor John.
But this is no depressing exploration of the horrors of old age.
Instead, it’s a moving and even joyful story of a couple who, as the New York Times put it, are determined to live out their time as they see fit – not in a hospital or a nursing home but on the road.
“As you do get older in life, people think that the only films you really can do are films about cancer and Alzheimer’s,” the 72-year-old actress told NPR.
But it was such a beautiful script. It was so sweet and funny, and … it’s a love story. It’s what happens after ‘they lived happily ever after’.”
The Leisure Seeker – which is also the name the Spencers give to their battered 1978 campervan – is based on a comedy-romance novel with the same name. In the film, John and Ella run away from the doctors and adult kids who’re keen to usher them into aged care, preferring to head from their home in Detroit to Florida’s idyllic Key West.
And adventure they do, with a run-in with the law, an attempted highway robbery and even issues over infidelity just some of the hurdles they tackle as they steer the cantankerous Leisure Seeker to their destination.
The movie’s message is all about living your later years on your own terms and about confronting death as a part of life, even while snatching yet a bit more time for living life to the full.
Mirren says this focus on ‘what happens after happily ever after’ drew her to the film, because Hollywood so rarely realistically addresses the end of life.
“Violent movies, sure, but they deal with death with no consequences, not the real thing,” she explained in an interview with Global News.
“[The Leisure Seeker] is a simple, human story that couldn’t be more ordinary. Talk about ordinary people! You could stop anyone on the street and say, ‘tell me about your grandparents, or your parents’, and they’d have a story to tell.
The actress says her matter-of-fact view is only sensible now she’s in her 70s.
“It’s not something you can hide from at my age and why not have an open discussion and see death as full of life and a celebration of liberation,” she told The Mirror. “I want to continue with passion for life and love until the last days.”
That’s exactly what John and Ella do in The Leisure Seeker, with one review calling Mirren and Sutherland “dynamos” on screen.
“Acting together for the first time since 1990’s Bethune: The Making of a Hero, they convincingly evince the tenderness and exasperation and shorthand communication of a long-married couple,” the Austin Chronicle says.
“[Sutherland and Mirren] also deliver a rounded sense of John and Ella as individuals – the injustice of his essential self being stolen from him, as his bursts of lucidity grow further and further apart; her quiet rage at the aging body’s many betrayals.”
They’re performances that have you cheering for the Spencers, the Philadelphia Inquirer says.
“Sutherland and Mirren work hard to establish John and Ella as a couple worth pulling for, even as we begin to suspect that what they want is to go out on their own terms.”