Great and Golden Oldies – 16 later life dramas

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Glenda Jackson’s recent BAFTA win for her piercing performance in Elizabeth Is Missing, out on DVD on 24 August, got us thinking about other film portrayals of people in their twilight years.


Movies are often obsessed with youth and virility, because that's what the studios and media outlets believe audiences want to see. But it's meant that older characters, our pensioners, haven't always been well treated on screen. Here we present 16 dazzling examples of senior citizen cinema starring some of our finest old-timers.

What will you watch next?

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Elizabeth Is Missing

Based on Emma Healey’s runaway bestseller, Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, a woman determined to find her missing friend Elizabeth (Maggie Steed). But can she solve the mystery of Elizabeth’s disappearance before her advancing dementia erases all the clues? Jackson won the 2020 BAFTA for Leading Actress for her astonishing performance.

 

Away from Her

Julie Christie is mesmerising as Alzheimer’s sufferer Fiona Anderson who, when admitted to a nursing home, blanks out her husband of forty years and transfers her affections to a fellow patient. Gordon Pinsent as husband Grant also delivers a performance of great insight and humanity in Sarah Polley’s impressive directing debut.

 

Amour

Septuagenerian director Michael Haneke's emotional and intelligent exploration of devoted octogenerian love, ageing and death won a clutch of awards including a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Emmanuelle Riva won a BAFTA and a César Award and became the oldest nominee for a Best Actress Oscar for her remarkable portrayal of stroke victim Anne. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne are a sophisticated and loving couple in their 80s who face a harrowing struggle with her physical and mental decline. As the title suggests, love conquers almost all in this assured, extraordinary, heartbreakingly beautiful film, one of the best of recent years in any category.

 

 

Care

Jimmy McGovern’s acclaimed film-length TV drama centres around a daughter caring for her mother, a stroke victim. Alison Steadman stars as Mary, an active, independent woman who happily takes care of her grandchildren while her daughter Jenny (Sheridan Smith), a single mother, works. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Mary suffers a stroke which triggers dementia. She requires full-time care and the local authorities aren’t willing to provide the essential support Jenny now needs to care for both her helpless mother and young children, as well as hold down a job to make ends meet.

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel/Second Best…

With its best-of-British silver-haired ensemble cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Tom Wilkinson, this is feel-good comedy gold at its most charming. The story follows a group of British pensioners who move into a retirement hotel in India, only to find their new home is not as luxurious and relaxing as they were led to believe…

See our Spotlight on Judi Dench

 

Cocoon/The Return

Three elderly friends (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn), in a Florida retirement home, discover the swimming pool next door that can renew their energy and gives them a new lease of life. These two gentle sci-fi comedy dramas directed by Ron Howard and Daniel Petrie also boasts a supporting cast of elders including Jessica Tandy and Brian Dennehy. Think of this as an E.T. for oldies!

 

Mr Holmes

Ian McKellen gives a striking performance as an elderly Sherlock in Bill Condon’s tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, which delivers a sympathetic study of the agonies of ageing by depicting the deterioration of one of fiction’s finest minds. Laura Linney also stars as widowed housekeeper Mrs Munro.

 

Tokyo Story

Probably the most celebrated film of all time about old age, Yasujirō Ozu's movie is a deceptively simple masterpiece – a husband and wife travel to the big city to visit their children, but they are treated as irritants and obstructions: only their (widowed) daughter-in-law shows them kindness. Not a great deal happens and yet it's a film that contains enormities; gentle, unforced and heartbreaking.

 

Ladies in Lavender

Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith star as two elderly spinster sisters in this period drama directed by Charles Dance, showing that the thrill of love is ageless. The sisters’ lives are thrown into turmoil when a handsome Polish castaway, who can’t speak English, washes up on the shore by their Cornish home and reawakens long-dormant yearnings and memories. Miriam Margolyes co-stars.

See our Spotlight on Maggie Smith

 

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel about ageing, regret and catching up with a troublesome past stars Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Harriet Walter, with fine support from Emily Mortimer and Michelle Dockery. Now retired, Tony Webster looks back over his failed relationship with Veronica Ford, his girlfriend while at university. After making contact with her once more, Tom is forced to confront painful memories from his past as new light is shed on the events surrounding their failed relationship.

 

Quartet

Beecham House is a retirement home specifically for former artistes, including opera singers Cissy (Pauline Collins), Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Wilf (Billy Connolly). When the fourth member of their quartet Jean (Maggie Smith) – a diehard diva who also happens to be Reginald's ex-wife – arrives on the scene, everything changes. Theatrical temperaments and old hostilities flare as the dramatic foursome fuss, flirt and flounce their way through rehearsals. Directed by Dustin Hoffman.

 

Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s outstanding revenge drama was only the third Western ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. Eastwood stars as grizzled, widowed and retired outlaw and bounty hunter Will Munny, who is tempted back into the fray when he hears of the brutal mutilation of a young prostitute by two itinerant cowboys. Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris also star as Sheriff ‘Little Bill’ Daggett, Munny’s former partner in crime Ned Logan, and rival gunman English Bob.

 

The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith steals the show in this mostly true story of the scatty old lady who parked her battered van on Alan Bennett’s drive and became an unyielding fixture in the writer’s life. The support cast includes many of Britain’s finest comedy actors, led by Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and Jim Broadbent, but all eyes are on the twinkling verve, audacity, wit and charisma of Dame Maggie as she shakes off the shackles of Downton and gets stuck in to some proper acting.

 

45 Years

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won the top acting prizes at the Berlin film festival for this drama about a happily married aged couple whose relationship is threatened by news from the past. Kate and Geoff Mercer learn that the body of Geoff's former fiancée has been discovered in the Swiss Alps, 50 years after she disappeared on a walking holiday with Geoff. Although Kate knew of Geoff's first love he kept their engagement a secret. As she finalises preparations for their wedding anniversary party, she begins to delve deeper into her husband's past and makes new discoveries that threaten to spell the end for their 45 years of marriage.


 

The Good Liar

Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen star as a widow and a confidence trickster in this thrilling relationship drama, adapted from the novel by Nicholas Searle. After meeting retired Oxford professor Betty McLeish online, elderly con artist Roy Courtnay resolves to take everything she has. As he works his way deeper into her life, Betty's son Stephen (Russell Tovey) begins to suspect that Roy is not all that he appears. But is Betty everything Roy believes her to be?


More films starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen

 

The Leisure Seeker

Helen Mirren again, this time starring opposite Donald Sutherland who plays her husband. Ella and John have shared a wonderful life together for more than sixty years. Now they're on the run from their doctors and middle-aged children, who just want them to shuffle gently into undignified old age. In their trusty camper van, the pair escape together and embark on a vacation of rediscovery along Route 66. Ella is determined to make it to their final destination for one more carefree day together – even if it is their last.

 

For more films and TV shows about the older generation, browse our complete collection.

 

The Notebook, On Golden Pond, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? etc etc

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