It seems to be universally agreed upon that seniors are under-represented in film, as well as often being unfairly or inaccurately portrayed in those roles which do exist for them. But why should this be? Well, possibly because movies tend to be written by those who are more youthful in years, and whose interests gravitate towards characters nearer to their own age. And possibly – so the theory goes – because in an attempt to manage their own fear of ageing and the inevitability of death, a writer may stereotype, ridicule, or outright deny the existence of a character of senior years.
But what do we mean by ‘senior’ anyway? Are we talking about those people eligible to receive a state pension, of 60 or 65 years of age? Are we thinking about an older generation, in their 70s, 80s, or 90s? Or is the insidious creep of ‘seniority’ moving the other way, to now include those in their 50s, who probably – and fairly – merely think of themselves as middle-aged? There doesn’t seem to be just one answer to this question, and possibly it largely depends upon the age of the person, or group of people, doing the defining, as well as their reason for creating a definition.
Comedy in particular, partly because of its tendency towards caricature, is often lambasted for inappropriate or offensive characterisations of, and clichéd stories about, seniors or the elderly. Films starring older people are often just about the ageing process itself, the onset of poor health and the losing of faculties, the inevitable slide towards death. And although there is nothing wrong with this, if it’s done right – after all, it’s where we’re all heading! – it doesn’t have to be this way. However one wants to define ‘senior’, everyone’s abilities differ, people are still people no matter their age, and there is a plethora of new and better stories out there, just waiting to be told.
Finding Your Feet, which opened in UK cinemas last week, is a British senior comedy starring Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Joanna Lumley, Timothy Spall, and John Sessions, that examines how one might re-discover oneself, and re-find one’s joy in life, when having to start over after a late-in-life marriage break-up. To celebrate its release, we take a look at five other British Comedies that focus on older people attempting to live their best lives.
Calendar Girls (2003)
On the lighter end of the ‘senior’ scale, this female-centric comedy features Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie, and Penelope Wilton, as members of the Knapely Women’s Institute, who decide to pose nude for a calendar in order to raise funds for their local hospital. Based on a true story, it examines issues such as female friendship, censorship, and attitudes towards the ageing female body. It’s a heart-warming tale, and an all-round delight.
Keeping Mum (2005)
When Grace Hawkins takes on the role of housekeeper in the troubled home of vicar Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson) and his wife Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas), she has a unique way of solving everyone’s problems: she simply kills the people who are causing them. Maggie Smith as Grace portrays a character who is charming and complex, and presents a refreshing – if terrifying – antidote to all those helpless little old ladies that are so ubiquitous in film. Be warned: this is a black comedy and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is highly recommended!
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a retirement-complex in India. When a group of British pensioners decide to relocate there for their retirement, they are surprised to find that it is not exactly as advertised in the brochure. This aspirational comedy-drama examines issues such as bereavement, senior dating, wanting to continue working after retirement age, racism, and assimilating into a new culture. With a cast that includes Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton, this is definitely one you’ll want to watch.
The Lady in the Van (2015)
Yet another film starring Dame Maggie Smith, this is something of a bitter-sweet addition to this list. Based on the play by Alan Bennett, this comedy-drama tells the true story of Mary Shepherd, an elderly lady who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. Mary is strange, eccentric, difficult, ill, and although Bennett does his best to help her, her presence is somewhat forced on him, and their friendship is, at best, a strained one.
Mary is never presented as less than a whole person, and although much of the humour in this film derives from the bizarre situation, and the odd things that she does, the viewer is never actually laughing at her in a cruel or dismissive way, instead being encouraged to feel both Bennett’s frustration and compassion towards her, and her complex and sad story.
Golden Years (2016)
There is a certain charm to this action comedy about pensioners fighting back against a system that has screwed them over. Notably, this list so far has largely featured female protagonists, but this one focuses equally, if not more, on the ageing male. Arthur Goode (Bernard Hill) and his friends have had their pensions pulled out from under them, and are struggling financially, physically, emotionally. The private sector, meanwhile, is making a pretty profit.
When Arthur walks off with a case full of money that isn’t his, he becomes a fugitive, and decides to continue his new career in crime by robbing banks and redistributing the money to those in need. And in true Breaking Bad style he discovers joy and purpose in his new occupation. Golden Years is a tense, funny, and heart-warming story of taking back one’s power at any cost.
Finding Your Feet is now on general release at cinemas across the UK.