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“It is time to show the whole world that America is back!” We hear the words of Trump bellowing at the start of The Leisure Seeker, recalling how he spoke to millions of misty-eyed voters reminiscing about a time that never was. Italian director Paolo Virzi marks his first English language film, The Leisure Seeker by moving Michael Zadoorian’s novel of the same name forward from 2009 to frame the 2016 Presidential election campaign around a nostalgic road trip.
And yet, where one might expect more thematic discussion, the political backdrop acts as little more than background noise, for the most part, instead focusing squarely on an elderly couple hitting the road for one last time.
Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland star as Ella, a fun-loving soul appearing to be in cancer remission, and John, a retired English professor slowly being overwhelmed by the onset of Alzheimer’s. They blow off carefully made plans by their son and daughter to hit the road in their trusty 1970s Winnebago lovingly nicknamed The Leisure Seeker. Their final destination is Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West allowing John to visit the home of his literary hero for the first time.
Both Mirren and Sutherland embellish their relationship with a fifty-year backstory that makes the affection they share for each other feel touchingly authentic. John is the one the family are most concerned about as his memory slips in and out of focus, while Ella remains in charge, partly frustrated at having to remember everything on his behalf but equally as directionless without her lifelong companion by her side.
Paolo Virzi takes us along the never-ending highways of southern America set under flawless blue skies and flat expansive plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s the sort of imagery outsiders have long become accustomed to seeing in American cinema which makes it feel as familiar as the habits and memories Ella and John happily share after all these years. Some long-distance journeys feel arduous and tiring but this is one trip you are happy to see through to the end.
Their children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney) flounder around in the background worried to death about John’s health but their presence is mostly inconsequential. This is about the hard-earned love and affection shared between a man and wife in their later years, readying themselves to head off into the sunset. The reality of their fragile health never remains too far away but despite the predictable nature of the film, this is one area that doesn’t offer an easy answer.
The Leisure Seeker makes no bones about the audience it is aiming for and plays up to almost everything expected of it. It is schmaltzy and manipulative in how it wants you to respond but Virzi’s simple direction leaves the emphasis on two performances that give the film real warmth and heart. You’ll see grandparents, parents and your own future-selves reflected in the eyes of Ella and John. Provided you manage to keep your own dry, of course.