Will and Jane Spencer arrive at their family home one morning to find their parents, John and Ella (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren, respectively), have absconded in the family Winnebago, the Leisure Seeker. The parents have hit the road one last time to have a final vacation in the trusty vehicle used in their past family holidays, to allow John, a retired English professor, to finally visit the house of his idol Ernest Hemingway.
From Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi (Like Crazy, Human Capital), The Leisure Seeker is a road movie that forgoes the stereotypical odd-couple conflict in favour of a couple that knows each other very well. Long married and embarking on what they both know is likely to be their last holiday, Ella is sick and John is battling dementia, leaving an underlying sense of sadness throughout The Leisure Seeker.
Even in the lighter moments, of which there are many, this lurking sadness never fully dissipates, which means The Leisure Seeker’s comedic diversions never entirely hit home. The breezy antics are always shadowed by the serious reasons behind it, failing to leave a clear tone to fully embrace.
We see John’s erratic behaviour first hand. We witness him at his best, in the moments of lucidity he is still able to muster, and also at his worst, when his condition diminishes his mind to the point where he cannot recognise his wife. Likewise, we see Ella struggling with her own illness, while constantly trying to keep John’s mind active and engaged.
But there are lovely moments, too, such as the impromptu campsite audience that forms around John and Ella’s family slideshow display, or when John, confused and believing his adult daughter has just gone off to college, tells her he is proud of her.
The Leisure Seeker is almost melodrama, but not quite, because Sutherland and Mirren ground their performances in dignity and are never overblown. When reminiscing about old times, talking of family holidays and of their life together, their chemistry and interaction is warm and genuine. If it drifts close to sentimentality at times, it’s because John and Ella themselves are sentimental, fondly remembering their shared history.
In Sutherland and Mirren, we have two fantastic lead actors who make the journey bearable. It’s not too common for a film to focus completely on an older person’s perspective, and Sutherland and Mirren don’t let the opportunity pass them by; natural performances from two greats.
Apart from the tone, the main issue with The Leisure Seeker is that it’s too long. With a run time of 112 minutes, the Spencers’ lumbering Winnebago is an appropriate metaphor for the film’s pacing. Since most of the “action” is van based, the movie could definitely stand to lose at least ten minutes.
With its heavy load and Sunday-drive approach, The Leisure Seeker is not going to be everybody’s first choice for a night out at the cinema. A two-hour rumination on life’s impermanence is always going to be a hard sell, regardless of how light the treatment. Nevertheless, those who want to acknowledge our fragile existence in the context of a very well acted, curio of a road movie – not quite a comedy, yet not entirely a drama – will find The Leisure Seeker worthwhile.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★☆☆
‘The Leisure Seeker’ opens in Australian cinemas on June 14, 2018.