Review: What They Had

DIR: Elizabeth Chomko • WRI: Elizabeth Chomko • DOP: Robert Schaefer • ED: Helen Sheridan • PRO: Albert Berger, Bill Holderman, Tyler Jackson, Keith Kjarval • DES: Ed Tom McArdle • CAST:  Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga

This is not a feel-good movie.  That said, it has depth and many will identify with the content.  The film opens on grainy footage of a man carrying a woman down the street on a sunny day, both parties laughing and hugely enjoying the moment. The context of that moment is movingly revealed much later in the film. The scene is related to the title of the film.

What They Had is essentially about the impact of Dementia on family relationships as the Dementia deteriorates. There are related themes here also such as duty and loyalty within a family. Here, (like most families), duty and loyalty may have different interpretations across the family.

Ruth (Blythe Danner) is being cared for full-time by her elderly husband Burt in their home in Chicago (great performance from Robert Forster). He is struggling in his role as carer though he is loath to accept support from his two adult children Nick (Michael Shannon) and Bridget (Hilary Swank).

Burt is a man with strong moral and religious values which he regularly articulates in word and action. Though he loves his adult children, he is openly and regularly critical of them. He is not a believer in light touch regulation.

Burt is scathing about Nick’s career choice as a bartender and seems reluctant to acknowledge that Nick now has his own Bar. I found Nick instantly dislikeable, though that impression mellowed as the film progressed.

Burt is equally tough on his daughter Bridget  (played by Hilary Swank), who travels from California with her daughter when she realises that her father is struggling and that her brother is making no headway in trying to persuade Burt  that residential care may at this stage be the best option for their mother.

Bridget is herself struggling with her relationship with her teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Her minimal phone contact with her husband speaks for itself.  While the story is seen primarily through the eyes of Bridget, the film is an ensemble piece with each of the characters having something of a story arc.

This is the debut feature for writer/director Elizabeth Chomko. Ms Chomko has a background in Theatre as both an actor and playwright. She has elicited fine performances from all of her principal cast, all of whom have a depth of character which is a credit to the writing as well as the directing. It is a courageous choice of subject matter.

The influence of her theatre background is evident in this film in both the writing and directing. I felt the film may have had its roots in a stage play and could certainly be adapted to the stage. That is not to say that it doesn’t work as a film. The subject matter lends itself to a confined world.

Hilary Swank has two credits on this film. Apart from being the lead actor, she also has a credit as executive producer, which suggests she has strongly endorsed this project.

There are some very moving sequences in the film, though one or two predictable outcomes also.

What They Had has an authenticity which gives the strong impression of the story coming from personal experience. Despite the gravity and tragedy of the story, there are comic moments throughout.

Brian O’Tiomain

101 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
What They Had is released 1st March 2019

What They Had –  Official Website


Review: Older Than Ireland


DIR: Alex Fegan • PRO: Colm Walsh • DOP: Gary Nicell • MUS: Denis Clohessy

Older than Ireland won best feature length documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2015 against some formidable opposition. Directed by Alex Fegan, Older than Ireland has a signature style which is reminiscent of Alex Fegan’s previous feature length doc The Irish Pub.

Like many of the subjects featured, the film is unhurried in pace but remains very engaging throughout. Older than Ireland is also reminiscent of the tone and structure of Ken Wardrop’s His and Hers.

The film follows a sequence of interviews with a range of Irish centenarians. Indeed, quite a number of those featured were significantly older than the 100 years old minimum age requirement.

The title derives from the fact that having been born over 100 years ago prior to the foundation of the state, all of those featured are effectively older than the state and indeed their births pre-dated the 1916 Rising.

In common with The Irish Pub, the subjects are a very diverse group who hail from all four corners of the country, urban and rural. They vary also in terms of class and outlook. But they are a universally interesting bunch.

Kathleen Snavely (113) emigrated to the US from Clare in 1921. Her story is in many ways a typical emigrants story which would resonate with contemporary emigrants. She was lonely initially. But she succeeded in eking out a much better life for herself than would have been the case had she remained.

Jack Powell (102) from Tipperary was Ireland’s longest serving Veterinary Surgeon and only retired a couple of years ago. He specialised in horses and clearly has an enduring passion for his job as a Vet. His story also included wartime service with the RAF. He clearly still has and very sharp mind and strong views on a range of subjects. Jack also has a passion for the Volkswagon Beetle and was still driving at the time the film was made.

There is inevitably a poignant tone to the film as the subjects reflect back on their lives. Many of their erstwhile friends, partners and contemporaries have gone. But many had also succeeded in re-inventing themselves in different ways. There are many unexpected light and humorous moments throughout the film.

They are the last men and women standing of a bygone era and provide a glimpse into the values and culture of the era. They reflect on their public and private lives with a level of insight which might not always have been present when those events were happening. Several have some fascinating recollections of events in the War of Independence and the Civil War.

The interviews are complemented by some wonderful photographs from a long gone era and the tone is complemented wonderfully by the music composed by Denis Clohessy.

There is a sense at times that these people are fully aware they are in the departure lounge. Sadly, many of them are no longer with us. But this is ultimately a positive life-affirming film.

Many of the subjects seemed surprised that they had endured for so long. I suspect that word of mouth may ensure Older than Ireland also endures in the cinema for longer than might be expected. It is a little gem of a movie and establishes the reputation of Alex Fegan as a director to watch.

Brian O Tiomain

PG (See IFCO for details)

91 minutes
Older Than Ireland is released 25th September 2015

Older Than Ireland – Official Website