I have learned most of what I know about history and society and morality from reading good novels and watching good movies (I admit I go to TV more for the escape). But fictional portrayals of family care giving in books and movies usually leave me cold. There’s too much sentimentality and nobility, or conversely cold conniving and self-interest.
When I saw Away from Her several years ago, I loved it for Julie Christie’s performance and because it moved me emotionally, but I wasn’t dealing with an impaired spouse myself at the time and accepted the soft focus presentation of memory loss without question. I suspect that if I were to re-watch that movie or Iris, based on the loving memoir by philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch’s never-complaining husband, I might react with a little defensive impatience since everyone in both films exhibits a niceness I obviously can’t always muster.
I certainly didn’t go see the new Meryl Streep/Hugh Grant movie Florence Foster Jenkins expecting to feel my soul exposed. But, I was shaken by how honestly it captures the complexity of a lopsided marriage in which one of the spouses has become the caregiver for the other.
The movie is about an actual Manhattan socialite known both for her great philanthropy and for giving hilariously bad public concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, despite having absolutely no singing ability, let alone talent.
I appreciated that there were none of the dreamy flashbacks or usual movie platitudes about cognitive loss that drive me crazy, maybe because Mrs. Jenkins does not have Alzheimer’s. However her ailment, with its own traumatic results, could be seen as an equivalent for the early twentieth century and required her husband to play a role many of us dealing with dementia issues will recognize.
And as good as Streep’s performance is in the title roll—and she is wonderful at making Mrs. Jenkins a real woman rather than an over-the-top caricature—even non-caregiver viewers will probably agree that Grant carries the movie.
Struggling to find my own balance as wife and caregiver, I found myself mesmerized by Grant’s performance as a husband forced to go beyond and at the same time fall short of normal spousehood. Others in the film might approve or condemn the decisions he makes concerning both his wife’s happiness and his own, but as Grant portrays him, the complex layering of his feelings for his wife at any given moment defies simple labeling like selfish or supportive.
And watching this husband try to keep his wife’s world intact as long as possible was painful and true—historically accurate evidently but also emotionally real and close to home at least to me.
In other words, if you have a chance, go see it. And let me know what you think.