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Film Review

New films: The Last Word & The Sense of an Ending; reflections on life

Two neat films open this week at the Tower Theatre, both of which focus on older adults reflecting on the lives they’ve lived and the impacts they’ve had on those around them. And each packs some leading star power from Academy Award winners.

Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet in “The Last Word.” A lifelong control freak, she lives alone in her big house, with little to do but interrupt her staff as she instructs them on the correct ways to do their jobs.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony in “The Sense of an Ending.” Although he considers himself retired, he still gets up every morning to open his specialty camera store, where he sells and repairs antique Leicas.

In many respects, Harriet and Tony are much alike. Both have alienated those around them and gained a reputation for their difficult manners. Harriet opened and ran a successful advertising agency until her partners forced her out because they could no longer stand working with her. Both have managed to push away their respective ex-spouses, and where Tony is his adult daughter’s second choice of go-to parent, Harriet has no contact with her daughter at all. But, given their respective genders, Tony is thought of by his family as a curmudgeon whereas Harriet is likely to inspire harsher descriptions.

One morning, Harriet finds herself reading obituaries in her local newspaper and fixates on what her own obituary is likely to say. With this in mind, she seeks out the journalist (Amanda Seyfried) charged with writing them and sets about the task of ensuring her own obituary will meet with her approval.

Tony’s reflections on his life are prompted by the death of the mother of his first girlfriend, and the notification that she has left him an unknown item in her will. The quest to discover what the item is and why it has been left to him cause him to recall the circumstances of that relationship and his school and college friendships.

Harriet’s urgent desire to ensure that she be remembered for something significant, while more self-serving, are reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s 1953 “Ikiru,” in which a dying man realizes that he’s never accomplished anything meaningful in his life. “The Last Word” feels like a lighter, spiritual successor to that film, with other structural similarities. It also feels strangely like the recent “20th Century Women,” at times looking as though it was shot in similar locations.

“The Sense of an Ending” is remarkably similar to 2015’s “45 Years,” in which Tom Courtenay plays a elderly man who is given news of the discovery of the body of his own former girlfriend, with neither of the men in the two films having told their later wives about the significance of the earlier relationships. Interestingly, Charlotte Rampling plays the former girlfriend in “The Last Word, and the wife in “45 Years.” It’s also reminiscent of 2005’s “Broken Flowers,” in which Bill Murray plays a man who seeks out his former lovers in an attempt to better understand his life.

“The Last Word” is the more narratively driven of the two films, as Harriet descends upon the overwhelmed young journalist and they seek to re-write a legacy, and it delivers more comedic moments along the way. “The Sense of an Ending” is primarily a character study of Tony, with the various details of the backstory being less consequential than their effect on Tony’s understanding of the way he impacts those around him. As with “Broken Flowers,” it’s likely to leave at least some viewers feeling as though little has happened, as the arc is all within the lead character’s self-discovery.

Both films fall into a category I like to think of as all-ages coming of age movies, as these self-searching expeditions to find one’s place in the world can be just as significant at 80 as at 18. There are similar themes in other films about older adults, including Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” as well as next week’s somewhat less senior-focused “Wilson” starring Woody Harrelson.

Both are also pleasantly surprising in their feminist sub-texts. “The Last Word” is a welcome example of strong female characters discussing life and succeeding in it, standing in contrast to some other films that have ostensibly focused on central women although still revolving around men (such as 2015’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams” – discussed here). And although “The Sense of an Ending,” by comparison, most likely barely (if at all) passes the Bechdel Test (described in that same earlier article), it still manages to deliver strong role models via the independently successful women in Tony’s life.

I teach a college class focused on living a balanced life and use films to prompt related discussions and papers, and so I’m especially partial to films with themes such as these. Of the two, “The Last Word” feels a little more manipulative and lightweight, largely because of the company its in, but still conveys a strong message and lesson in terms of considering how we’re seen by others, both in our lifetimes and after. “The Sense of an Ending” is darker and probably less accessible to a younger, more multiplex-oriented audience, but is profound in its consideration of not just how others see us but how we affect others.

Both are worth watching and, for friends who share film-watching stamina, might make a challenging basis for double-header, with time allotted for reflection and discussion.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

  • Ross P.

    Thanks, Tony, for the overview. You’ve encouraged me to see the Jim Broadbent film even though I’m not one of his fans. It sounds as if the boy/girl angle is here is less important than expected and that other interesting ideas are at work. Also, I like that he’s a classic camera buff!

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