Dementia has been a prominent theme in cinema of late. From respective Oscar-winning star turns by Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins as protagonists coping with the condition in Still Alice (Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, 2014) and The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020) to the heartbreaking road movie Supernova (Harry Macqueen, 2020), in which a couple played by Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth live out their last days together, the subject has been rich fodder for tear-jerking drama.
Adding a pathos-drenched Australian perspective to this subgenre is JJ Winlove’s emotive dramedy June Again (2020). The film – shot in 2019 but only commencing its theatrical run in May 2021 after COVID-19 hampered its release – tells the story of family matriarch June (Noni Hazlehurst), who has been living in a nursing home for five years, a shadow of her former self. Dementia has parted her from her memories; she cannot recognise her own family. In the meantime, her children have grown apart, and her business has all but collapsed in her absence. Then, by a miraculous twist of fate, she is offered a slight reprieve through a brief period of lucidity – a window through which she can reclaim her life. She sets out to reunite her estranged children, Ginny (Claudia Karvan) and Devon (Stephen Curry); inject her hand-printed wallpaper business with the passion it has been missing; and rekindle an old flame.
Hazlehurst has always been a solid performer – most notably in television series like The Sullivans, A Place to Call Home and The Letdown – and in June Again she gives a tender performance that challenges and engages in equal measure. With roles for older actors at a premium in a culture that heavily fetishises youth, a character like June is a rarity in Australian cinema. While recent films with middle-aged leads like Palm Beach (Rachel Ward, 2019) and Never Too Late (Mark Lamprell, 2020) have targeted audiences of a similar demographic with varying degrees of success, Winlove’s film tries something different. By playing with plot conventions beyond its wish-fulfilment premise, June Again subverts audience expectations by dealing with dementia head-on – not as a narrative device, but as a central thematic element.
A disability associated with a decline in brain function, dementia is a debilitating condition that cannot be cured. The pain of individuals who have been diagnosed with diseases such as Alzheimer’s is often matched by that of their family, who must witness a loved one lose their memory, independence and ability to perform everyday tasks. In Australia alone, almost half a million people live with the condition, with over 1.6 million people involved in their care; as CEO of Dementia Australia Maree McCabe puts it, dementia is ‘the chronic condition of the 21st century’.Maree McCabe, quoted in Caroline Egan, ‘Assaults, Loopholes, and Bad Smells: This Week at the Royal Commission’, HelloCare, 22 February 2019, <https://hellocare.com.au/assault-loophole-bad-smell-this-week-royal-commission/>, accessed 26 August 2021.
Films like June Again can take an audience’s preconceived ideas of dementia – that it is only about memory loss, for example – and give them a new perspective, as McCabe tells me:
One of the things that people find so challenging about dementia is that it is almost an invisible disability. And what we can’t see we often don’t understand […] So there’s a high level of discrimination in the community, generally […] And it’s not intentional. It is that people fear what they don’t understand and what they can’t see.
McCabe is aware of how important it is for dementia to be depicted in film, no matter the genre or style of filmmaking. ‘One of the things that it raises is awareness in the community,’ she explains. ‘It gets to demographics that we may not otherwise be able to get to because lots of people go to the movies or stream films. I think it is so important. And it normalises dementia.’
Approaching such a sensitive subject with a deft touch is essential, and something Winlove was aware of while writing June Again. ‘[I was] trying to find that balance – I was determined not to make it a gloomy film. I like the challenge of, “How do you have something like dementia in a film and still make it a feel-good experience?”’JJ Winlove, in ‘June Again – Behind the Scenes’, YouTube, 27 April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo4iiJ3XkpI>, accessed 25 August 2021.
So often in films about dementia, the protagonist is the loved one or carer, but June Again tries to faithfully convey the experience of living with the condition. In the film, the focus is squarely on Hazlehurst’s character and what she perceives is happening in her world; she is not an object of pity, but a figure of identification. For Winlove, this mission lies at the heart of the project:
One thing I really wanted to portray in this film that I haven’t seen before was a way of showing dementia from the point of view of the person who has dementia, and to try to give a sense of that disorientation and isolation that can sometimes be felt – and to show what it was like for [June] to not even recognise [her] own family.ibid.
Like June Again, The Father situates audience allegiance with its elderly protagonist, Anthony (Hopkins), portraying events from his fractured point of view. We experience his confusion as he struggles to keep in touch with reality and finds something as straightforward as recognising his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), increasingly difficult.
A major similarity between The Father and June Again is the use of multiple actors to play the same characters, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist. That idea was already in the play on which The Father was based – Le Père, which was also penned by Zeller – but is a particularly effective cinematic device, the director explains:
What I didn’t want was to tell that story from the outside. There are so many films dealing with dementia and they’re often told in the same way. You know where you are and where you are going. They can be moving or powerful, but I think cinema can provide such a unique experience of uncertainty, and I thought it would be so disturbing and strange to have the same understanding as the character.Florian Zeller, quoted in Peter Gray, ‘Interview: The Father Writer/Director Florian Zeller on Adapting His Stage Play and Working with Anthony Hopkins’, the AU review, 31 March 2021, <https://www.theaureview.com/watch/interview-the-father-writer-director-florian-zeller-on-adapting-his-stage-play-and-the-emotional-experience-of-working-with-anthony-hopkins/>, accessed 26 August 2021.
The sense of resignation conveyed in The Father – in which Anthony fights for his independence but reaches a point where he can no longer look after himself – is not necessarily shared by all films that deal sensitively with this condition. In Supernova, protagonist Tusker (Tucci) understands and accepts his fate. He wants to end his life on his own terms with dignity, using a road trip as a last hurrah to visit old friends, family and places from his past. The journey represents an opportunity to bid farewell to the life he loves before it is too late to do so. His partner, Sam (Firth), is hoping that the journey will rekindle old memories and prolong his partner’s lucid state.
June Again takes a different tack again, with June using her lucidity to help not herself but the ones she loves. She wants to leave the world how it was in her mind before dementia stole her memories – a past that is, perhaps, seen through rose-tinted glasses, but one that she is nonetheless preoccupied with re-creating. This lighter, more hopeful touch is shared by caper comedy Never Too Late, which follows four army veterans (played by Jack Thompson, Roy Billing, James Cromwell and Minder star Dennis Waterman) who became known as ‘The Chain Breakers’ after they escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam, and who now plan to do the same from their retirement home. As with June Again, a subplot involves former lovers reconnecting, except here the roles are reversed: protagonist Jack (Cromwell) mainly wants out so he can pledge his love to former sweetheart Norma (Jacki Weaver), who is now living with dementia.
While June Again and Never Too Late dwell in lighter territory, one recent Australian film took a much darker approach. Female-driven horror film Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020) stars Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote as a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter who are haunted by a supernatural manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.For more on Relic, see Josh Nelson, ‘House of Horrors: Ageing and Loss in Natalie Erika James’ Relic’, Metro, no. 206, 2020, pp. 12–7. This allegory was inspired by a visit the director made to her grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and couldn’t recognise her; James recalls suddenly feeling like a stranger to someone she had always been close to.Jeff Ewing, ‘Interview: Natalie Erika James Discusses the Inspirations Behind Relic, One of the Year’s Best Horror Films’, Forbes, 13 August 2020, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffewing/2020/08/13/interview-natalie-erika-james-discusses-the-inspirations-behind-relic-one-of-the-years-best-horror-films/>, accessed 26 August 2021. Mortimer similarly drew on her personal experiences to inform her performance: her father, Rumpole of the Bailey creator and writer John Mortimer, developed dementia in the last few months leading up to his death, and she has described how she felt the first time he didn’t recognise her face:
It’s horrifying when someone that has always only looked at you with love and seen you, every inch of you, and knows you, suddenly looks at you like they don’t know who the [fuck] you are. That feels like a moment in a horror film, and that’s what Nat has tapped into, that pain and confusion of people changing as they get ready to die and all the horror that it brings with it.Emily Mortimer, quoted in Karl Quinn, ‘Lest We Forget: Horror Film Relic Finds a Terrifying Ghoul in Dementia’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 2020, <https://www.smh.com.au/culture/movies/lest-we-forget-horror-film-relic-finds-a-terrifying-ghoul-in-dementia-20200630-p557la.html>, accessed 26 August 2021.
Despite the different approaches that June Again and its counterparts take on the complex issue of dementia – or, perhaps, precisely because of them – organisations like Dementia Australia are appreciative that it has become such a commonplace subject in modern cinema. As McCabe tells me, ‘There’s nothing quite like film to draw people’s attention to an issue, and I am just delighted that these movies are coming out, and that they have been done sensitively, powerfully and accurately.’
|1||Maree McCabe, quoted in Caroline Egan, ‘Assaults, Loopholes, and Bad Smells: This Week at the Royal Commission’, HelloCare, 22 February 2019, <https://hellocare.com.au/assault-loophole-bad-smell-this-week-royal-commission/>, accessed 26 August 2021.|
|2||JJ Winlove, in ‘June Again – Behind the Scenes’, YouTube, 27 April 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo4iiJ3XkpI>, accessed 25 August 2021.|
|4||Florian Zeller, quoted in Peter Gray, ‘Interview: The Father Writer/Director Florian Zeller on Adapting His Stage Play and Working with Anthony Hopkins’, the AU review, 31 March 2021, <https://www.theaureview.com/watch/interview-the-father-writer-director-florian-zeller-on-adapting-his-stage-play-and-the-emotional-experience-of-working-with-anthony-hopkins/>, accessed 26 August 2021.|
|5||For more on Relic, see Josh Nelson, ‘House of Horrors: Ageing and Loss in Natalie Erika James’ Relic’, Metro, no. 206, 2020, pp. 12–7.|
|6||Jeff Ewing, ‘Interview: Natalie Erika James Discusses the Inspirations Behind Relic, One of the Year’s Best Horror Films’, Forbes, 13 August 2020, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffewing/2020/08/13/interview-natalie-erika-james-discusses-the-inspirations-behind-relic-one-of-the-years-best-horror-films/>, accessed 26 August 2021.|
|7||Emily Mortimer, quoted in Karl Quinn, ‘Lest We Forget: Horror Film Relic Finds a Terrifying Ghoul in Dementia’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 2020, <https://www.smh.com.au/culture/movies/lest-we-forget-horror-film-relic-finds-a-terrifying-ghoul-in-dementia-20200630-p557la.html>, accessed 26 August 2021.|