The Hatton Garden Job, which is released in cinemas this week, is a film based on a real life robbery that has been called the “largest burglary in English legal history”. A daring heist from an underground safe deposit facility in London that captured the public’s imagination as much due the advanced age of the criminals involved as the brazenness of the crime itself.
With that in mind we take a look at some other films in which the characterisation of the elderly is defined beyond the usual physical limitations and vulnerability associated with senior citizens.
In many ways Clint Eastwood has been channelling the spirit of a grumpy old man as early as his 40s when he played Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry series. Eastwood, perhaps more than anybody else, has cultivated the persona of the ageing hero for sometime now in films like Unforgiven, In the Line of Fire and Blood Work. It has been easier for Eastwood than most to play these types of roles well into his 70s due to his imposing stature and intimating demeanour as well as having the distinct advantage of often directing himself as well.
He has managed to maintain a screen presence that transcends his age, which was particularly evident in Gran Torino in 2008. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a disgruntled Korean War veteran who sets out to reform his neighbour, a Hmong teenager who tries to steal Kowalski’s prized possession: a 1972 Gran Torino.
The notion of a 78-year-old action hero seems like a contradiction but it is hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the role without the same level of grit and grizzle that Eastwood manages to produce. His tenacity is much more verbal than physical but still manages to bring real sense of credibility and believability to the role.
Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a complicated film that, at times, is both psychologically bizarre and erotically surreal. It is pulpy, darkly comic, uncomfortably intense and morally dubious. All of these elements are explored through Isabelle Huppert’s multi-faceted performance as Elle, a woman who gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tries to track down the unknown assailant who raped her.
What’s even more remarkable about this character study, however, is that the film broaches these topics without her age ever being a component or relevant in anyway to her actions or in how she is depicted. In fact the film does everything it can to reinforce just how capable she is and we never see her as a victim or even vulnerable, which is quite an achievement given the subject matter. She is a successful businesswoman, sexually desired and has a level empowerment that is hard to quantify.
It was interesting to hear the list of other actresses rumoured to be initially attached to Elle, which included the likes of Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard, all who are – it is worth noting – significantly younger than Isabelle Huppert. But as talented as they are it would have been hard to picture any of those actresses mentioned pulling of the role with as much chilling vigour as Huppert managed to do.
The Straight Story
The Straight Story is a film about triumphing over the limitations of old age rather than succumbing to the burdens of it. Although its central character is significantly hampered by the effects of aging what is so special about this tale and the reason it makes this list is what the film’s central character manages to achieve and how he preservers despite his bodily restrictions. Not to mention, the best part of all this is that the David Lynch-directed tale is actually a true story.
The film is based on elderly World War II veteran Alvin Straight’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin, travelling a total of 240 miles on a lawn mower. Upon hearing that his estranged brother Lyle has suffered a stroke Alvin decides to visit his brother and hopefully make amends. This plan is drastically complicated, however, as his eyes were too impaired for him to receive an actual driving license, hence his decision to undertake the trip on a riding lawn mower.
The film is slow-paced but incredibly heart-warming with the film becoming as much about the people Alvin meets along the way who listen and cares for him as it is about the actual destination. What is even more inspiring is that Richard Farnsworth who plays Alvin was terminally ill with prostate cancer during the shoot of the film and actually took the role out of admiration for Alvin Straight. It brings a real undercurrent of poignancy to the film but is probably also the strongest indication that the film’s profound message resonates so deeply.
Lily Tomlin is an absolute tour de force as Elle Reid, an acerbic grandmother whose misanthropic life is thrown into chaos when her teenage granddaughter visits her to ask for money for an abortion. It is probably a minor tragedy that 27 years had passed since Lily Tomlin’s last lead role starring opposite Bette Midler in Big Business because she is absolutely sensational in this.
Elle, who is a lesbian poet, is portrayed as not only creatively renowned but also a presence to be feared as demonstrated in the hilarious scene when she forcefully extorts $50 dollars from the father of the child. The film at its essence explores the generational differences between the different women within the one family with Elle still displaying a vibrant pit of fire born from decades fighting for women’s equality decades prior. While her granddaughter remains largely ignorant of the history of the movement and the sacrifices that were made.
Elle is a feisty powerhouse that is another marvellous portrayal as an ageing woman that refreshingly avoids anything resembling a cliché.
Despite being a story based around some horrifyingly heartbreaking real life events Stephen Frears’ Philomena still manages to come across as a charming road trip movie. This is in no small part down to the pitch perfect chemistry between Steve Coogan, who plays a world-weary political journalist, and Judy Dench, who plays a woman in search of her son who was taken from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
The pairing is a joy to behold and the interplay between Dench and Coogan is up there with the best screen pairings there is. In fact I am pretty sure you could make a whole franchise around them solving various crime together. Philomena 2: Back Again in the Vatican with Al Pacino as the Pope, anyone? All the buddy cop delight of the duo wouldn’t amount to anything, however, without Dench’s dignified representation of this woman who, despite her genuine grievances, maintains a capacity for forgiveness that is unbelievably moving at times.
She brilliantly tows the line between being comedic yet sensitive with an ease that never takes away from the central story or indeed a well-rounded respectful portrait of Philomena.
Originally on April 14, 2017 for HeyUGuys.