‘The Leisure Seeker’ Celebrates the Hardships of Lasting Love
For his first English-language film, Italian director Paolo Virzi teamed up with Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren and Canadian great Donald Sutherland and put them in an RV to engage in a great American pastime: The Road Trip. Based on the best-selling of the same name, “The Leisure Seeker” Mirren and Sutherland star as Ella and John Spencer, a long-married couple who embark on a journey from Boston to the Florida Keys. Their trip is to culminate at the Hemingway House, as it has long been a dream of John’s, a retired English teacher, to visit the home of his hero. As John is the the latter stages of Alzheimer’s and Ella is dealing with some mysterious health problems of her own, this is no ordinary vacation, but the last hurrah for the loving couple.
“I loved the subversive spirit in this little story of rebellion,” Virzi revealed to Entertainment Voice when asked what inspired him to adapt Michael Zadoorian’s novel. “I imagined this elderly couple as me and my wife in 30 years time trying to triumphantly end our life and our love story. There was something really inspiring [in the novel] for me. At the same time, I also had my reluctances. It was set in another country in a language that was not my own.”
Virzi initially wrote the screenplay in Italian before teaming up with American writer Stephen Amidon. Even after having a finished script, the director was nervous about moving forward with the ambitious project, admitting, “I tried to escape, to get away from this, telling them that I would do this film only if I had Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland.I thought it was just a big [bluff], a way to protect myself from consequences of making a movie in America, but it happened that they unexpectedly accepted.”
With Mirren and Sutherland on board, Virzi and his “melting pot crew,” which included his Italian compatriots as well as Americans, went to work.
“American film industry and filmmaking style is more organized, more scheduled. Everything is prepared,” said Virzi, revealing that the Italian way of doing things is more fluid. “Theses two styles, [mixing] them together can have great results at the end.”
These great results included shots of beautiful America vistas, as well as plenty of emotionally impactful scenes. Mirren’s frustrations is palpable as she watches her husband come and go, so to speak, as John has flashes of lucidity. Far from being blissfully unaware of his situation, John also grieves for the loss of his former self. “Who ever stole him from you stole him from me too,” Sutherland laments with sadness in his eyes in one of the more poignant scenes. Despite their hardships, the profound love that comes from a lifetime together is evident between the pair, as Mirren and Sutherland have superb chemistry together.
For his part, Virzi takes little credit for the chemistry between his leads. “They didn’t need me as a director. They were embodying their characters so genuinely and attentively, I felt like I could relax.”
“The Leisure Seeker” is far from all tears and grief, however. There are plenty of humorous scenes, include one involving the elderly couple being held up by gun-wielding thugs, a potentially serious situation that the spunky and resourceful pair work in tandem to turn around. Another memorable scene involves the late actor and comedian Dick Gregory in his final role as a former love of Ella’s whom the couple pay a surprise visit.
“This is something I really love,” said Virzi of mixing the light and the dark. “This is a common thing with all of my movies. This was not something new to me. The new thing was the other country, the other language. But all of my movies are a combination of comedy and tragedy… Life is something funny and sad at the same time.”
As the film is set the summer before the election of Donald Trump, politics play a minor role. To really drive home the point of how far gone poor John is, at one point Ella loses track of and finds her husband, a lifelong Democrat, shouting slogans with the MAGA crowd at a Trump rally.
“It’s just a nuance,” explained Virzi of the film’s political elements. “It wasn’t possible to avoid that shooting in the summer of 2016. Everywhere we went, every little town, every little village was full of political signs and billboards and rallies. It was the reality of what was happening. This getaway was happening in the summer of the Trump campaign. It means something.”
Like most long-married couples, Ella and John have experienced some bumps along the road. Even after 50 years, neither are immune from jealousy, proving that mature couples face a lot of the same challenges as the younger ones. Mirren as Ella experiences a gamut of emotions after learning of an indiscretion her husband made decades earlier. In his diminished mental state, John reveals something to his wife that ignites within her a fire that would put that of any younger woman’s to shame.
“Love is not just a sugary, cuddly thing,” declared Virzi. “ It’s also a challenge. It’s a dance and a fight at the same time.”
“The Leisure Seeker” opens March 9 in select theaters.