The Roads Not Taken review: Sally Potter’s dementia drama is rich with intimacy, if not answers

Sally Potter’s drama is a compassionate look at early onset dementia, yet one that struggles to always explain itself

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 10 September 2020 16:24
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The Roads Not Taken trailer

Dir: Sally Potter. Starring: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Branka Katić. 15 cert, 85 mins

The Roads Not Taken, an understated drama from Sally Potter, is rich with small moments of intimacy. They’re partially informed by personal experience – Potter’s older brother lived with Pick’s disease, a rare form of age-related dementia, before his death in 2013. She has immense compassion for those caught up in the wake of a diagnosis. Her film opens on Leo (Javier Bardem), who’s frozen in bed, as doorbells and mobile phones ring out, his mind failing to interpret their meaning. He’s in the late stages of frontotemporal dementia – some part of his imagination is still active, but his tongue can now only mutter a few disconnected words. Bardem, who’s spent a career writing pain into the creases on his face, is impeccably cast here. He never plays Leo as a tragedy, but as someone in constant battle with himself.

His daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), cares for him, guiding him through a day of appointments – first with the dentist, then with the optometrist. Her expressions – some unique meld of love, sympathy, and frustration – could only belong to a child who must now parent their own progenitor. She talks to him in soft, babyish tones. When he soils himself, she leads him into the bathroom to change. She plays with him a little, trying to keep the atmosphere light. She even whips off her own trousers in solidarity. If she doesn’t smile and laugh at all times, it might scare her father. But when her role as a carer comes at odds with her career as a journalist, that mask begins to crack.

Potter has empathy, too, for Leo’s less supportive ex-wife (Laura Linney’s Rita). “Why does everyone continue to refer to Dad as ‘he,’ as if he’s not here?” Molly asks, after a trip to the emergency room sees staff treat him like a ghost. “Well, is he?” Rita replies. The writer-director, in her own peculiar way, thinks she might have a point. Leo finds himself drawn back – not to the past as it was, but as it could have been. The idea isn’t so fanciful for Potter, who already bent time, space, and gender in her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Bardem as Leo with Salma Hayek’s Dolores in one of the film’s timelines

Leo is a writer, always in search of an ending – not only to the book he’s writing in one of his imagined lives, where’s abandoned his family and cloistered himself on a Greek island, but to his own existence. But happiness seems to elude him. On the island, he’s become a lecherous old man, chasing after the beautiful tourist (Milena Tscharntke) who happens to be the same age as his daughter. In another timeline, he stayed in Mexico with his childhood sweetheart Dolores (Salma Hayek). Here, he’s a man disassembled by unnamed grief. His bitterness and insolence eats away at his love, as Dolores begs him to join her at a memorial for the dead.

Yet Potter seems so intimately connected to these characters that she doesn’t think to share their worlds with us. It’s hard to know what Leo thinks of life as it’s turned out for him, since the director gives us so little insight into his existence. Was he always a selfish man, whatever the circumstances? Or does that small, but persistent light in his daughter’s eyes hint that this reality, with all its burdens, is still the happiest? The Roads Not Taken leaves that answer somewhere out of frame. 

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