Popular culture has a long and variable history when tackling the subject of physical or mental illness on screen. Feature film depictions of dementia have encompassed everything from the frankly implausible excess of The Notebook to more complex and considered explorations of the condition in Away from Her and Still Alice.
‘Legacy’ sources of popular culture including film and TV can be a source of inaccurate and even alarmist representations but equally can play a critical role in improving audience awareness and understanding about dementia. Two recent feature-length film releases – The Father and Supernova – neatly illustrate popular culture’s mixed contribution to dementia literacy on screen.
The British film Supernova is a thoughtfully written drama with impeccable performances from Colin Firth (Sam) and Stanley Tucci (Tusker). The film adopts a determinedly autumnal tone as it addresses the physical and emotional challenges a middle-aged couple face as they deal with Tusker’s progressive decline after a diagnosis of early-onset dementia.
We are offered the perspectives of both men at different times but as with many films that tackle the topic of dementia, the film is dominated by the point of view of the carer/partner. More significantly and disappointingly, the unmistakable message underpinning the film − that living with dementia is intolerable – is a fundamentally unhelpful one.
As people living with dementia, educators and others working in the field have argued, while acknowledging the complexities and challenges associated with the condition, it is equally important to emphasise the potential to live well with dementia. Despite the exquisite Cumbrian landscapes and numerous poignant scenes, Supernova writer/director Harry McQueen ultimately squanders the opportunity to affirm the possibilities of living a meaningful life with the illness.
Florian Zeller’s The Father offers a very different perspective. Based on Zeller’s play of the same name, the film is a brilliantly immersive depiction of what it might feel like to live with dementia. In contrast to the focus on exterior landscapes in Supernova, The Father takes place entirely within a set of cloistered interior spaces.
From the opening scenes, we are unequivocally aligned with the central character Tony (Anthony Hopkins). As viewers, we see through his eyes and are plunged into a world where there are frequent and disconcerting shifts in time and space. Apartment rooms inexplicably change appearance and orientation; objects move or disappear (the whereabouts of Tony’s watch takes on a symbolic import).
Carers and close family members look confusingly different at times and give contradictory accounts of their motives and plans. We experience first-hand Tony’s desperate attempts to keep track of the conversations and questions that swirl around him. Every supporting character unwittingly and repeatedly starts sentences with ‘you remember …’, an appeal that simply compounds Tony’s anxiety and underlines his perception that this is exactly what he cannot do.