What They Had

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank in What The Had
"Danner...does an excellent job with the material she is given and makes very clear the fact that her character is losing her memory, not her mind." | Photo: Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Why is it that discussions over the proper care of elderly and disabled people always begin with 'imagine how you'd feel if this were happening to one of your parents' and not 'imagine how you'd feel if this were happening to you'?

What They Had is a film of that ilk, a film about a brother and sister - both healthy and in the prime of life - who are beset by such a crippling lack of empathy that they can understand neither the older generation nor the next one. Michael Shannon is wasted in the thankless role of Nick, the son who lives locally and thinks his life unbearably hard because he supplies back up care to his mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), which also obliges him to deal with his father Bert (Robert Forster), whose hard work as a full time carer he shows little respect for. He's not unrealistic but that's part of the problem - resentful men like him populate half the internet and if there ever was anything interesting about them, we've all seen it by now. Hilary Swank gets more to do as his sister, Bridget, briefly dropping in to help out, whose learning curve we follow as the story progresses. Nick's favourite thing to pick on her about is the fact she lives in California, and her storyline is very Californian indeed.

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With Bridget's nervous daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) along for the ride, struggling to assert her independence as a young adult and explain that she isn't happy at college, the stage is set for a series of messy family interactions, though anyone who has spent much time with a stage six Alzheimer's patient like Ruth will be surprised by how un-messy they are, especially in light of Nick's carelessness. This is a very sanitised portrait of the disease. The film opens with a romantic image of Ruth, clad in a white nightgown, wandering through glittering snow. Beet refers to the indignities of life as a carer but we never actually see that side of things. Ruth becomes confused and resentful sometimes but there are no screaming fits; there's no aggression or even real panic. The result is that it's difficult to take the strain on this financially comfortable, otherwise unburdened family very seriously.

This is not to criticise Danner, who does an excellent job with the material she is given and makes very clear the fact that her character is losing her memory, not her mind. The dignity of her performance is vital to helping us understand her husband's devotion. Nicky, however, wants to put her in a care home. He doesn't understand why his father objects; perhaps he's simply never been in love. This tug-of-war forms the core of the story, with Bridget, who holds power of attorney, uncertain what to do. To complicate matters, she's jealous of her parents, being unhappy in her own marriage. This she blames on her father; Nick blames it on her failure to stand up to him when he urged her to rush into a wedding. The family is Catholic and Emma's age tells us the rest.

The characters display plenty of emotion and not a lot of thought. Watching them take days to come up with even the most basic ideas for making the house safer makes one wonder how any of them made it this far through life, and it might well make you wonder what disaster is likely to follow the romanticised ending. The film is nicely shot, however, and the excellent set design goes some way to providing depth and backstory. Although the soft focus drifting around old family photographs is decidedly twee, the layered design of the different rooms which not only accommodate the couple but provide anchors for Ruth's memory is impressive. it's in these details, and in the finely tuned performances, that What They Had succeeds. Those things aside, however, it is unlikely to linger in he memory.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2019
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What They Had packshot
Bridget returns home to Chicago at her brother’s urging to deal with her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her father’s reluctance to let go of their life together.

Festivals:

Sundance 2018

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