Eighty years old in a society enamored of youth, Joss Ackland finds in How About You a meaty part to play among fellow British-Irish actors no longer young, either. “Great parts for people over nineteen, fantastic!” enthuses his junior by nine years, Vanessa Redgrave, of this adaptation of a story by Ireland’s fifty-nine-year-old Maeve Binchy. Indeed, set in a rural residence for the elderly and those who think themselves so, the cuddly plot calls up fantasy Cocoon in more than just the pleasure of watching veteran performers. But whereas Ron Howard’s Florida old folks are restored to physical prowess by beneficent extraterrestrials, Dublin director Anthony Byrne’s cast are spiritually rejuvenated through a feisty young outsider who learns tolerance, respect and organization in the process. Even crusty middle-aged Department of Health inspector Mr. Evans (Darragh Kelly) experiences personal abandonment, unbends, and joins in the Christmas fun, so all bases are covered.
With a score of upbeat popular and seasonal standards, the resolution is from the outset no mystery. Five years a widow, Kate Harris (Orla Brady) is joyless and financially worried running the Woodland residence for seniors. State-regulated but not –subsidized, her private business competes with others for paying clients, only five of which of hers are developed as personalities. She needs all the individuals’ fees, yet several have been driven elsewhere by the “hardcore” (the title of the source story) of four and their quarrels, antics and demands for martinis and breakfasts.
Into the mix comes Kate’s younger sister Ellie (Hayley Atwell), unsettled, resentful of their mother’s disapproval of her boyfriend (Ryan O’Connor, as Dan) and greater acceptance of Kate, and needing a job.
The five residents we come to know, and presumably those we don’t, have their difficulties with ageing. They are unable to drop baggage from the past, regrets, secrets, alcohol and cigarettes. Plus it’s arguably irresponsible that holiday imbibing contributes to reconciliation.
Too easily, as well, Ellie brings her marijuana which will delight and mellow alcoholic former High Court judge Donald Vanston (Ackland), minor character Nurse Healy (Elizabeth Moynihan), and later a more laidback Kate. Not among the four troublemakers, Alice Peterson (Joan O’Hara, who died last year at seventy-seven and to whom the picture is dedicated) does not mourn her childlessness, awaits death to rejoin the husband with whom she traveled and smoked kef in Morocco, and wants a wheelchair jaunt to the snowy river and a last joint.
Cultured and spiteful, Donald is nagged by his failure to sober up before his wife died and bitter about booze’s costing him his job. Imperious and Tallulah-theatrical, kicking up her hip-replaced broken leg but hiding lusterless grey hair under a turban hat, Georgia (Redgrave) looks in the mirror and cannot find her The Sound of Music-Kit Kat Club self from when “we all wanted to look like Twiggy.” The other half of the elderly problem children is the Nightingale sisters, hiding from life though “not even old [and] shouldn’t be here.” Both of them stunted by a stern father, bulkier elder pool whiz Heather (Brenda Fricker, sixty-four) overprotects frailer Hazel (Imelda Staunton, fifty-two), a secret portraitist scarred by the forcible severing of her one love affair and giving to adoption of her newborn son.
Kate must dash to their stricken mother’s bedside. Nearby St. Maria’s closed and unavailable for the December holidays and her own staff with vacation plans, she has no choice but to leave her novice sister in charge of everything for the four core grumps who have made it impossible for themselves to have anyplace else to go.
The two weeks are entirely what you’d expect. Anger and frustrations come out in residents and caretaker, but all five will bond and grow up. Secrets in the open, the Nightingales’ love is more solid, and Heather’s cue stick wins pub admiration, as does her sister’s artwork. Georgia wins raucous applause with her singing and, beauty-parlored by Ellie, wins a special admirer in Donald, who turns old charmer teetotaler.
Kate loosens up and respects her footloose sister, who herself learns of their mother’s equal affection, gains self-respect through responsibility, and leaves love’s duplicity behind.
Treacly, as our cousins across the pond would put it, and with an ending foreseeable a mile away, How About You is harmless -- unless weed and four-letter words offend -- affirmation of age and youth. Best, it brings together a cast strutting their stuff, not as the dotage of second childhood but in the happiness of being alive at whatever age.
(Released by Strand Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)