Venice Film Festival: The Leisure Seeker

The Leisure Seeker
The Leisure Seeker
Venezia 74
Directed by Paolo Virzì
Starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland

by Joanna Orland

Fine performances can’t fully save The Leisure Seeker from its own mediocrity, but they certainly do try. Ella and John Spencer (Mirren and Sutherland) are an elderly couple on the run from their own children, in order to spend the rest of their limited days together on the vacation of a lifetime. Ella has always promised to take John to Hemingway’s house in the Florida Keys, and now that his memory is fading due to Alzheimer’s disease and Ella herself is dying of cancer, it’s now or never. The couple take their old 70’s camper van ‘The Leisure Seeker’ on the road for this one last hurrah.

The Leisure Seeker as a film plays it safe, no new ground trodden, no new stories to be told. Where the film does break new ground is through the fantastic performances by Donald Sutherland as an elderly man losing himself to dementia, and Helen Mirren as a woman dealing with the loss of her husband before he’s gone. Sutherland’s John is portrayed sensitively as he comes in and out of alertness. He sometimes plays the situation for laughs, sometimes for the audience’s sympathy. He earns them all. Mirren on the other hand is much bolder in her performance, showing many more dimensions to a character, who in the hands of a lesser actress, would have only one.

I can almost envision The Leisure Seeker as a two-character play. Where the film thrives is when these two are together without any other on screen distraction. In fact, the changing scenery and snippets of Trump’s America feel completely peripheral to the heart of the story. Italian director Paolo Virzì is perhaps the wrong choice for telling this story as while he’s trying to observe America, it feels like an outside perspective, and a totally unnecessary one. To me, the ideal here is for this story to have been told with only Ella and John, in one location – their trailer. This is a personal story through and through.

More than the location changes, the supporting cast truly bog down The Leisure Seeker, in particular, Christian McKay as the Spencers’ son with an over-the-top hammy and stunted performance. As Ella takes John through their lives via slideshows, there is no need to see present day family members. The couple are their own story and everything else feels not only redundant, but a hindrance.

Truly beautiful and raw performances from The Leisure Seeker‘s leads are sadly not enough to make this film as worthy as its actors. In fact, it is only what they do with the material that makes this film worthy of a watch at all.


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