The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE ROADS NOT TAKEN | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

the roads not taken review
Stricken by dementia, a man begins to recall long shut out memories.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Sally Potter

Starring: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Chris Rock, Branka Katić

the roads not taken poster

Throughout any given day how often do we mentally rehearse an incident before it happens: a meeting with an employee, a confrontation with an abiding irritant, some sort of contact with that obscure object of affection? And then if that incident does go ahead, how far from the original make-believe practice does the event play out? Leaving us to introspectively refit and re-block events, curating a director’s cut of our experience? In a sense that is all we are left with, really. Our own take on things, a light and sound show in our mind, filtered through our own prejudices, bias and emotional processes: what we hope happens, what then happens, and how we ultimately process it.

the roads not taken review

What we call experience is a subjective thing, indeed. In Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken, the mercurial concept of introspection is explored via the condition of dementia: Javier Bardem is Leo, an older fella whose mind and body are falling prey to decline. His daughter Molly (the great Elle Fanning) shares care duties with a home nurse, while ex-wife Laura Linney (playing Rita in a superbly pitiless, woman scorned role) is in the background here and there to throw bitter shade. The narrative slips between the concrete reality of Molly taking her dad through downtown NYC to get his eyes checked (a straightforward task which nonetheless in Leo’s condition becomes real Joseph Campbell hero’s journey stuff) and Leo’s memories, which, in turn, are confabulations of what may or may not have happened, and are furthermore predicated upon his confusion at the world at large.

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And so, as Molly wrestles with her beast of a dad - getting him dressed, up into a taxi, changing his soiled trousers - Leo’s mind transitions. He swoons back in time to confrontations with his true love (Dolores, played by Salma Hayek - what a cast!), and also hard cuts to an affair with a much younger woman, which may or may not have happened (the girl looks a lot like Molly…). Falling from a truck in his mind, and a cab in reality, Leo ends up in A&E. On the ward he murmurs Dolores’ name, which causes fresh resentment from Rita: it seems as if these ancient memories are not only fresh to Leo. How much of our lives are founded upon distorted experience which infects our present?

the roads not taken review

The topic is sensitively handled, and uniquely suitable to cinema. Film is a repackaging of reality, and, whether representing a fictional idea or based upon the re-telling of ‘real life’ incident, is a skewed process. Even documentary is prone to selection; the millions of choices the film-maker has to execute, the infinite opportunities available to block a scene. Who can blame Leo for withdrawing into his own interiors instead of his dependent reality? Not me, sitting down to watch a film which is made up by Sally Potter and played out by actors. Bardem is honestly astounding. His performance switching from a pictorial representation of gorgeous and suave (in his mind) to an empty, inarticulate husk of bewilderment in actuality: the physical transformation is astonishing. Potter visually compliments the performance with startling use of space: tight walls and ceilings in NYC and the deep, Mediterranean colours of wide-open Andalucía in Leo’s fantasies.

the roads not taken review

Despite the devastating implications of its focus, typical of Potter there is an artistic playfulness at work in The Roads Not Taken. Towards the end of the film, Leo, symbolically adrift in the Aegean, is brought to by a rescue boat, which is configured in temporal reality as Molly, once again. Or is it? In the film’s final sleight of hand, our own understandings of what we have seen are brought into question, and the narratives that we presumed to take for granted are suddenly not so certain. What begins as an incisive personal drama challenges our own cinematic perceptions.

The Roads Not Taken is on Netflix UK/ROI now.