The Leisure Seeker

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,’ croons Janis Joplin over The Leisure Seeker’s closing credits. The line is such a neat distillation of the film’s guiding spirit, it should really be painted on the back bumper of the Leisure Seeker itself – the vintage motorhome that dauntlessly chugs its way from Massachusetts to Florida with long-married Ella and John Spencer (Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland) on board. 

Poster for the senior-citizen road movie The Leisure SeekerThe Leisure Seeker is a consoling, teary/funny road trip comedy about an ageing couple who realize their days – of living independently, at least – are numbered.

John is slipping further into the fog of Alzheimer’s with every passing week, while Ella is awaiting some kind of hospital treatment, which her bobbed wig suggests can be nothing good.  Rather than go along with the plans of their adult children (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney), the Spencers treat themselves to one last driving holiday together – a pilgrimage to the house in Key West occupied by Ernest Hemingway during nine of his most creatively fruitful years.

John, a former English teacher, recites Hemingway like Buddhist sutras – or perhaps, along with the old-timey slide shows the couple watch every evening in whichever campsite they’ve pulled into, as a kind of mental yoga designed to keep his memory as supple as the Alzheimer’s allows. 

John’s grand white beard and tufty hair make him simultaneously distinguished and irreparably dishevelled. Sutherland’s ability to radiate dignity even when his character loses himself in the depths of dementia is instrumental in making us ache for the younger, sharper man the film doesn’t even have to show us.

Helen Mirren brilliantly choreographs all the jostling emotions familiar to any caregiver spouse – we watch Ella move from amusement to exasperation and back again, often within the span of a sentence. Crucially, the film doesn’t just have John forget things in funny ways. It’s bluntly honest about the cruelty of his condition – the irritability, the delusions, the incontinence – and finds a rough-edged humour in that frankness. 

There is a terrific scene in which the Spencers bump into one of John’s ex-pupils, now a mother of two. Ella starts to make excuses for her husband, but then he launches into a detailed reminiscence of his former pupil, and the three-way dynamic is grippingly tricky: John revelling in a rare lucid memory, Ella wounded and prickling that she isn’t a part of it, and the younger woman smiling yet sensing something’s up. 

The canon of Alzheimer’s films doesn’t lack for performances full of compassion and fine-grained observation, from Iris all the way to Still Alice. But as their faded Winnebago wends its way to the coast, Ella and John show there’s room for two more.

– Robbie Collin, The Telegraph


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