The Closer We Get


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Closer We Get
"In the landscape of film, Ian fits easily into the villain's role, but Karen is the archetypal unreliable narrator and it's easy enough to read this narrative in a different way."

When Karen Guthrie says she's going to tell the story of how life has treated her mother Ann, who has recently suffered a stroke, you could be forgiven for thinking you've seen this film before. They may all be made on low budgets and fly under the radar of the multiplexes but there's no shortage of tragic illness films out there, presenting portraits of human suffering and of the strain experienced by carers who are drawn into it all. This film, however, is something quite different. Ann's insistence that her family is 'rivetingly normal' highlights the fact that many families have extraordinary stories hidden away; it's just rare that any light is shone on them.

Perhaps Karen herself doesn't quite grasp, when her journey begins, how extraordinary her family's story is. It evolved during the time she was shooting and, as a consequence, we sometimes see her blindsided. At times she's naive, at times selfish, but her willingness to deliver up all this in such an honest way is a major part of what makes the film intriguing. She's as much a subject of it as the other family members, just as vulnerable and thereby just as visibly human.

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Ann, who agreed to tell her stories to her daughter in this way before her stroke happened, is one of those women whose whole life has been built upon resilience. Even now, faced with variable cognitive difficulties as well as physical disability, she retains a formidable wit and self awareness. This is perhaps what has sustained her through a life of painful disappointments: in herself, for falling short of what she hoped to be; and in the husband who simply didn't love her the way she loved him.

That husband - or, by now, ex-husband - is Ian. He's just moved back in to take care of her but it's difficult to tell how serious or committed this is, partly because nobody in the family is in the habit of having direct conversations with anybody. Instead, they discover one another through their conversations with the camera. In the landscape of film, Ian fits easily into the villain's role, but Karen is the archetypal unreliable narrator and it's easy enough to read this narrative in a different way. Born into an ordinary working class Scottish family, Ian was bigger than the world he found around him; he longed for adventure, so seized an opportunity to go and work in Djibouti. The tragedy of the situation stems from his apparent inability to recognise, or care about, what this did to Ann, financially provided for but essentially left to raise four children alone - whilst he, unimpressed by the drudgery of the life she then inhabited, fell in love with an Ethiopian woman and had another child, whom he kept secret for five years.

It's a story full of dramatic twists and turns, with consequences that keep unravelling as the film develops. Underlying it are unspoken questions about the expectations we have in life, our duty to others and our duty to ourselves - should we take more responsibility for our own happiness? That's near impossible for Ann after her stroke, but as her children find their own direction in life, it's apparent that the choices she made have borne fruit. Perhaps she wouldn't even be aware of them as choices if it weren't for Ian's contrasting example or Karen's determination to stand up to her father after years of silence, but she has been learning whilst he has been living, and Karen's film gives her the opportunity to pass on her wisdom, a final fierce stab at creating meaning where it cannot easily be found.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2015
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The Closer We Get packshot
Auto- biographical documentary about an apparently ordinary family having to stoically deal with broken dreams and hidden secrets.
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Read more The Closer We Get reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ***1/2

Director: Karen Guthrie

Writer: Karen Guthrie, Karen Guthrie

Starring: Karen Guthrie, Ian Guthrie, Ann Guthrie

Year: 2015

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK, Ethiopia


EIFF 2015

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