Film explores terminal illness with integrity, intelligence
Tearsheets: Bo Smith, Film Coordinator, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave ., Boston, MA 02115
Directed by Heddy Honigmann.
Screenplay by Heddy Honigmann
and Otakar Votocek.
Based on the novel by J. Bernlef.
Starring Joop Admiraal, Marja Kok,
and Melanie Doane.
Plays tomorrow at 6 and 8 pm at the
Museum of Fine Arts.
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
[gfH]ersenschimmen ("Mind Shadows") does not provide its audience with any easy escape. The whole film is dedicated to portraying the twilight years of Maarten and Vera Klein, an elderly Dutch couple living in a small Nova Scotia community. Maarten develops Alzheimer's disease -- a mental affliction that causes premature senility -- and his wife Vera (Marja Kok) has to take care of him and learn to cope with the strain and difficulties that enter their life. Despite some problems in the film's construction, the sheer power of this material forces its viewers into stark confrontation with human mortality.
Joop Admiraal, who plays Maarten and whose mother in real life suffers from the disease, gives a performance that is the bedrock anchor of the film's success. He brings home the full impact of Alzheimer's disease on an aging brain, drawing the viewer into Maarten's world with all its mental non sequiturs and discontinuities. He also convincingly portrays a spectrum of symptoms that range from Maarten's incipient absentmindedness to his paranoid tendencies when he finds himself in a nursing home at the end of the film.
The performances of the other actors, however, range from the merely adequate to downright problematic. On the one hand, Marja Kok's portrayal of Vera (Maarten's wife) is good enough to hint at the sad and difficult direction her life has taken. On the other hand, Rick Collins' role as the owner of a bookstore calls for him to be onscreen for only a few moments, but those moments are awkward. Perhaps these lapses can be ascribed to elements of regional filmmaking that pop up from time to time in the film.
For the most part though, the other actors don't shine because the script simply doesn't allow them to do so. Melanie Doane, for example, is a beautiful young Canadian actress making her feature film debut. She plays Phil Taylor, a live-in nurse hired by Vera to take care of Maarten during the day. The role of Taylor, as provided by the screenplay, is too limited to allow Doane to exercise any acting talent she may possess. The same goes for other characters, most of whom are constantly overwhelmed by Maarten's persona and story.
That is why director Heddy Honigmann's strong focus on Maarten is such a mixed blessing: The other characters are not very satisfying because they are not fully articulated characters in their own right. They exist primarily as foils for Maarten and his mental deterioration, and even then Honigmann's direction only allows hints and whispers to come through. These characters should not be relegated to the background so much, because Alzheimer's disease can severely punish relatives of those afflicted by the disease, making their whole lives revolve around the painful and steady deterioration of their loved one.
Maarten's closest relative is, of course, Vera, his wife. Honigmann may have decided to devote relatively little time to Vera and other characters to avoid detracting from the film's focus on Maarten. Honigmann may also have wanted to to subsume the secondary characters into the background in order to strengthen the film's austere presentation of the cold and harsh Canadian winter environment. Finally, there is also the fact that audience members who have faced Alzheimer's in real life will need only a minimal presentation of Vera's plight to identify with her character. All of these issues underlie Honigmann's approach, but Honigmann is only partly successful in making them work to her advantage. As a result, most of the secondary characters remain vague and murky.
Nevertheless, Honigmann's direction is good enough to bring the issue of Alzheimer's disease to the screen, and she has done so with sensitivity, intelligence, and care. In particular, she has coupled Admiraal's startling performance with the inherent power of the film's subject matter. Considering that this project was markedly different from any that Honigmann tackled before (her background is in short, experimental films), her direction of this film is enough to raise hopes for her future efforts. One can only admire the integrity of a filmmaker who willingly takeson a topic with as little popular appeal as Alzheimer's disease.