Sunday 12 February 2023

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

This film is a portrait of a broken man. A broken man not especially because of the fact that he is, in present day, suffering from some kind of dementia (which was never really labelled throughout), but also because of tragic events in his life before present day. The film flashes back to fill these gaps, using his memory within the context of what is happening now.

Leo (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) is living alone, with a carer coming in and out to help him, but also under the watchful eye of Molly (Elle Fanning, A Rainy Day in New York), his daughter from his previous marriage to Rita (Laura Linney, Ozark). This is all set in a flat in New York where Leo insists on living, nearly under a railway bridge, providing more context from his tragic 'first love' relationship with Dolores (Salma Hayek, Frida).

Leo was a writer and Molly is trying hard to follow in his footsteps, but the pressure of looking after Leo grows throughout the length of the film, which is a day-in-the-life style from British writer/director/composer Sally Potter. Not quite in real-time, but certainly depicting a day. A day when Molly has Leo booked in for a dental appointment followed by an optician's one - hoping to get all that done by lunchtime in order to meet a deadline for her work.

As the film progresses, we travel with Leo's mind to spend time understanding what the relationship with Dolores was about, the passion, emotion and conflict between them - as their tragedy unfolds. We travel with him also to a time when Molly was very young and he appeared to have abandoned Rita and her to head off to Greece for 'peace to write his book'. In amongst all this, we follow Molly and Leo as they go about the day in question, meandering between disasters in the programme and crisis of confidence.

As all of this unfolds, we do get a rounded picture of what's what, the pieces of the jigsaw are put together in the end, but the central portrait remains with Leo and Bardem's harrowing depiction of this broken man. Which he does excellently. He's more 'removed' from any kind of control in his life than, for example, Anthony Hopkins in The Father, remaining passive mostly and muttering words in his native Mexican tongue and English in rotation. Alongside Fanning, they pull together impactful and moving performances which I couldn't fault. Hayek had less to do, but she also executed her usual ability to demonstrate passion and emotion in a role, whilst Linney nailed the one scene she was in - but both certainly underused. This was all about the two main characters, family bonds, daughter/father, blood is thicker than water.

There was also a message going on here about the value of human beings, regardless of their intellectual capacity as Molly berates various members of staff from the hospital, optician and dentist for their 'inhumane' approach to her father. There's also a taxi driver in one scene who does the same to a colleague, who is treating Leo with less respect than a person should receive. Another central theme is about regret, visited a couple of times in the dialogue but also demonstrated by other visual means throughout.

Sally Potter (The Party, Orlando) pulls it all together really well with just the right amount of storyline exposure at the right times, emotional engagement with the audience and I think, hits the nail on the head. I was surprised to see that the film has received less than enthusiastic appraisal from various quarters as I have watched/read various reviews - often focusing on that very point - about emotional engagement. So yes, I would counter all that and suggest that the disjointed claims are not valid and I'd assert that it was put together very nicely to achieve what it set out to do.

It's well worth a look and is now available via the usual streaming services for viewing. It's a pretty short film at under 90 minutes, but there's an awful lot packed into them and for me, the time flew as the depiction of the events and performances got right under my skin! Recommended.

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