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Review by David Macdonald
3 stars out of 4
Here is a film which does what few Hollywood films would try to do;
depict the life of an old person in a way which seems realistic.
I've seen the Grumpy Old Men movies, I've watched The Golden Girls,
but they are nothing like A Woman's Tale, which tries to give us the
unvarnished, and, if you may, wrinkled truth.
The film was directed by Paul Cox, an Australian known for film such
as Lonely Hearts and Man of Flowers. This movie is much like the
bits of those other films (A Woman's Tale is the only one I've seen
all the way through) -- it's slow, quiet and filled with warm and real moments.
The woman is named Martha -- she is about 80 years old, and has cancer
of the lung, due to years of smoking that she isn't willing to give
up. She lives in an apartment by herself, paid for by her son, who
doesn't really approve of such an old person being on her own. A
nurse, hired by her son, visits and checks up on her, but it's obvious
that they are as much friends as nurse and patient. They get along
so well, in fact, that Martha allows her to carry on an adulterous
affair with a married man in her flat while she's out (the nurse,
too, is married). Martha herself is pretty much independent otherwise;
she stays alone in her apartment at night, with only her cat and her
parakeet to keep her company, and she does the usual things that other
seniors seem to do a lot, like hang out at the park with another old
friend, and go to the usual social gatherings of other seniors (one
shot is of her and a bunch of other old people singing songs at what
appears to be the nearby old age home).
Martha is getting old, but she is not ready to give up just yet, even
with the lung cancer that will take her life more sooner than later.
In simple ways, she feels naturally justified to live her life as
she chooses, as in a funny moment when she, accompanying the nurse
and her boyfriend at a restaurant, lights up, even though it's a non-smoking
establishment. She says that she loves smoking and that it never
really hurt her all of these years, so why should it hurt anybody
else. Then she points out that "tea, it kills you; coffee kills you"
and points to the complaining manager that stress kills too.. Good
points all, although in this politically correct, anti-smoking age,
where smokers are painted in an only less harsher light than that
of anthrax-laced letters, I doubt that too many people in authority
would let her comments go by lightly. In stronger ways, she has
lived so long and seen so many good and bad things that she wonders
how anyone else could want to give up life. There's a great moment
when she is listening to an all-night call in show (sort of like Talk
Radio's Barry Champlain as a nice sensitive guy), and listens to a
suicidal sixteen year old, whose boyfriend committed suicide, and
who believes that there is nobody out there who cares for her. Martha
is so moved that she calls up the show to speak to the girl herself,
pleading with her not to do anything rash.of course Martha's hopes
are not answered, since such a teenager as the caller is not mature
enough to understand that life is to be lived, that life is all about
ups and downs, and that just because a bad thing has happened doesn't
mean that life is over, or useless. Only someone of Martha's age
and mindset would appreciate such facts.
It's interesting that Martha's son would believe that Martha is incapable
of taking care of herself, as if she is some sort of invalid, because
it's clear in many ways that Martha is able to take care of others,
or at least try to make them happy. She obviously does her best with
the suicidal caller, although it would probably work better if the
two weren't strangers. She is able to protect the fooling around
of the nurse and her lover, and make them feel as if they are in a
safe place. And she also takes care of the man next door. The man's
name is Billy, and he too is a senior, and it is safe to say that
he is far more gone than Martha could ever be; Billy was a former
member of the military, but is now a senile old man. I wonder myself
if perhaps he was shell-shocked from the war, and never fully recovered,
or maybe he just naturally became the way he is; in any case, he is
a lost man. He doesn't take care of himself, hygiene-wise, and wanders
about the house and outside, sometimes locking himself out, or losing
things. He also mostly speaks in a whisper. Somebody has to watch
him, and Martha does that often.
I have to smile at the whole moral conundrum that is her tolerance
for the adultery in her apartment. I guess I find it a bit odd that
someone who professes to love life would approve of something that
is rather destructive in the long term. Surer, there seems to be
a thrill involved, but what about the unknowing partners (who are
never seen)? Or.. (as we get clichéd here) what about the children????
Martha says a few times that she likes to see these two people happy,
and even jokes about how envious she is...she seems to view them as
embodiments of something she might have had earlier in life. Not
having anything to do with adultery, most likely, but with young love,
beauty and passion. She doesn't focus on the damaging aspects of
this affair. But then again, she's been smoking for 60 years and
pushes away the harmful aspects of that too, so it's not as if she
thinks ahead. But that's okay..it's interesting to see an old person
just act like a regular person, even!
while obviously at the end of her life. She is someone who just wants to live life.
A Woman's Tale is certainly a good intro to Paul Cox the director,
as well as a showcase for the old lady who plays Martha. I enjoyed
certain portions of the film, and I bet if I watched it again, I'd
like it more, as I'd be able to better understand and know the characters.
The movie doesn't have a lot of plot, but it does have something
which is probably even more unique, which is an honest examination
of an old person's life. Instead of treating the fact of old age
as a quirk or an excuse to create a sitcom, it merely shows an old
person just being a person, and facing issues that all of us will
inevitably face when we are 80 years old.
Copyright © 2001 David Macdonald