Neither Malcolm McDowell, Jane Seymour, nor Keith Carradine* ever won an Academy Award for acting, but they all contribute Oscar-level performances to Bereave, a low-budget drama that won the big jury prize, Best Feature, at the recent Southeastern New England Film Festival (SENE Fest) in Providence. Independent film usually concentrates on genres such as horror in order to avoid head-to-head competition with products from major studios, leaving drama alone due to a perception that it is the least marketable style. A love story about a couple in their 60s or 70s is, by Hollywood standards, the kiss of death.
Yet brothers George and Evangelos Giovanis, natives of Coventry, RI, co-directed a film that escapes every formulaic easy out and instead is one of those rare stories where the viewer is legitimately kept in suspense from beginning to end. (Evangelos is the sole screenwriter.) Interesting characters put into interesting situations is the raw material of good drama, but few films have the courage to do that and give their actors free reign to work to the best of their abilities, and it is astounding the see the positive results here.
Of course, you know from the first moments of the first scene that there will be a death, but you should have already known that from the title. What you don’t know is who, when, how and how many. You certainly don’t know what will lead up to it or what will follow from it. I have long had an intellectual fascination with films about death, and am one of the few who would list the obscure Sidney Lumet comedy Bye Bye Braverman as a personal favorite, despite conceding that it is objectively quite flawed.
McDowell is an accomplished and hard-working actor since the 1960s with a long list of credits including iconic roles as the young delinquent Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the title character in the notoriously disastrous Caligula. He took a personal interest in the lead role and actively assisted the crowdfunding effort for Bereave, according to co-director George Giovanis. This is understandable, because it is a rare part in a great script for an actor of McDowell’s ability and age.
Although many films about elderly couples in love focus on their inevitable infirmities, most notably the 2012 surprise hit and critical success Amour, this film treats impending death as far more matter-of-fact than almost any other example that comes to mind, ringing true to real life. The main priority for McDowell’s character, Garvey, is to go as ungentle as possible into that good night, and he manages to provoke a fight with his wife, Evelyn (Seymour), on their 40th wedding anniversary, as she correctly senses that he his keeping something from her. Indeed, it is a secret he has chosen to share with only his younger brother, Victor (Carradine), who is powerless to do what he knows is the right thing and takes out his frustration in ways that seem wildly out of character to his driver and assistant, George (Mike Starr).
There are masterfully subtle, almost literary, cinematic touches, as we watch Garvey mess up Victor’s hair and Victor refuse to let anyone so much as comb it until Garvey many scenes later puts it right again. After all, Victor is a very controlled and disciplined adult who has no other way to exhibit how much turmoil is going on inside his head.
Garvey hides his situation from the rest of his family, including his take-charge son Steve (Mike Doyle) and his frustrated daughter Penelope (Vinessa Shaw), but he has trouble hiding anything from his granddaughter Cleo (Rachel Eggleston) who, like any 10-year-old, sees right through him – much to the annoyance of her mother, Penelope. Eggleston turns in an astoundingly solid dramatic performance, anchoring several key scenes.
Garvey spends his 40th anniversary meeting and making friends with strangers, especially Lauren (Christine Kelly), a young woman who reminds him of his wife decades ago, whom he will ask to help him set the stage for his departure in grand theatrical fashion. Evelyn is so affected by Garvey’s seemingly erratic conduct that she takes her own desperate action, running into some opportunistic street thugs (Ethan Embry and George Giovanis). Eventually all is resolved in perhaps the only way possible that would not be a cop-out on the part of the filmmakers, and while not exactly a happy ending – which would be impossible and almost deceitful – in a quietly contemplative and meaningful way for all of the characters that is, in its way, strangely upbeat.
There is simply nothing wrong with this film: It’s a wonderful drama with a wonderful script and outstanding acting across the board, much of it from old pros. If it were rated, it would be a strong PG-13 because of the honesty of its subject matter, but it is that unfailing honesty that is the film’s best and defining quality. These characters seem very real to anyone who has been closely involved with the death of a loved one, and their emotions are immediately recognizable, playing out on screen the classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Bereave deserves a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar, but the Academy likely will never even notice it.
* Keith Carradine did win an Oscar in 1975 for Best Original Song, “I’m Easy” in Nashville.
Official web site: bereavethemovie.com
Southeastern New England Film Festival (SENE Fest): senefest.com/sat-film-screenings-530-1030.html
Internet Movie Data Base: imdb.com/title/tt2832482
The stages of grief: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model