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

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