Produced by Noel Pearson, Sarah Radclyff
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Fricker, Hayley Atwell, Orla Brady.
A vehicle for a cluster of veteran acting talent comes rarely and How About You, adapted from a short story by popular Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, rollicks along with the superb combination of Vanessa Redgrave, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Fricker and Joss Ackland. They form the remnants of Woodlands, an old folks’ home when everyone else has gone for the Christmas holiday. They’re called the ‘Hard Core’, deservedly because with the variety of theatrics, demanding selfishness and manipulative rudeness they parade daily between them, they’ve managed to deplete the staff and residents to the point where it is barely surviving financially.
The home is run by Kate (Orla Brady), an upright young widow with a worried, melancholy air. In buying Woodlands following her husband’s death she seems to have chosen a moribund path. The wintry natural setting of the lovely old house is spectacular, but its autumnal colours are reflective of the dying gasps of lives whose usefulness appears to be spent.
Into this mix comes the fresh influence of Ellie (Hayley Atwell), Kate’s younger, hedonistic sister, who hasn’t quite grown up. Given a room in exchange for maid’s work, albeit under protest from Kate, Ellie behaves just as wilfully as the aged residents and in reaction to their abuse throws a tantrum or two of her own. At the same time, her compassion is stirred by the plight of the old, in particular by wheelchair-bound Alice (Joan O’Hara), who nonetheless feels she’s had a charmed life.
When Kate is called away to the bedside of their stricken mother for a week, Ellie remains to look after the Hard Core. A few shouted home truths precipitate a change in all of them. The film gives value to human connections, appreciation and sincere caring in creating a family no matter how dysfunctional.
Despite the portion of the film given to stinging insults thrown over breakfast and up and down stairs, the effect is light. It emerges as a gentle film with a thread of incidental comedy, notably in the intermittent resurfacing of some illicit hash cookies that reflects the lowering of defences of staff and residents alike. Perhaps the switch from rudeness to sweetness is too abrupt, but characters that are richer than they are shown allow moving performances nevertheless. A parallel between the two pairs of sisters is a leitmotif: Kate the rule-bound and the rebellious free-spirited Ellie, and the two elderly spinsters Heather and Hazel, played magnificently by Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton. Vanessa Redgrave and Joss Ackland play their abusive, cantankerous and exuberant parts superbly. Regrets of old age are juxtaposed with the careless freedom of youth against the human weakness of both, with large doses of jollity, music of the era flagged by the title and various substances of oblivion.
© Avril Carruthers 13th June 2008
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