Brian Cox lifts geriatric romp with the Bard at his bedside

Directed by  Janos Edelenyi
Written by Gilbert Adair, Janos Edelenyi and Tom Kinninmont
99  minutes, Rated MA 15+

The late Scottish film critic Gilbert Adair was famous for his withering wit, so let me not hold back about The Carer, given that he was partly responsible for its creation. While charming, The Carer is an indulgent English comedy about an aging actor facing death. It would be forgettable if not for the performance of Brian Cox, the Scottish actor who plays the decrepit Sir Michael Gifford, a barely living legend of stage and screen.

It is not quite in the sentimental style of other popular geriatric comedies set in India or old folks’ homes in England, but close.  At least it offers a more honest depiction of some of the horrors of aging, and the bonus of a character who has the vocabulary to express his dyspepsia. The pleasures of the film come largely through ripe language and good comic timing.

The bellowing Sir Michael has lost control of his bowels, a symptom of his Parkinson’s disease, so there is more than the smell of death about his stately home in the country. The young carer Dorottya (Coco Konig) looks at the house in awe, arriving in Sir Michael’s Rolls Royce, driven by his chauffeur Joseph (Karl Johnson), faithful servant for 40 years and once the actor’s dresser.

Dorottya has come for a job no-one has been able to hold for long, because Sir Michael is such a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed, abusive old coot. He refuses even to see her, bawling out his daughter Sophia (Emilia Fox) for bringing another candidate. Dorottya is unfazed: she is brave and outspoken. When he calls her ‘Tortilla’ and ‘Romanian’, she laughs. I am 100 per cent Hungarian, she declares cheerily. She surprises him with her knowledge of old movies – one of which is the original To Be or Not To Be, with Jack Benny as the cuckolded Shakespearean actor in occupied Poland.  A movie made by Hungarians, she points out, somewhat controversially – since Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin. I’m guessing that Adair was responsible for weaving Jack Benny’s interrupted version of Hamlet’s famous speech into the movie’s themes. Sir Michael has to be, but would rather not be, because no-one will help him cease to be.

Dorrotya doesn’t just know movies. She can match the old goat line for line in Shakespeare. She is an aspiring actor – something he can smell a mile away. Learning from a giant will help her career – a word she confuses with ‘carer’ in their opening moments together, in a wan joke.

In fact, the movie is not quite the full English. The director is Hungarian, as is much of the finance. Janos Edelenyi has been trying to get it made for more than seven years. Gilbert Adair died in 2011, and the film is dedicated to him. This is Edelenyi’s first feature, after a couple of TV movies. His inexperience shows in the performances of the minor characters, but not in those of the principal cast, who give a spirited rendering to some outlandish scenes. Anna Chancellor joins Cox and Fox as a third leg, playing Milly, the great actor’s ‘secretary’ – in fact, his former lover and devoted carer in her own right. Why does he need another carer, one wonders? Because the beast must have a beauty, and Coco Konig (born in Vienna, not Budapest) brings that and more to her first film role.   It’s a familiar structure: innocent youngster draws the best out of a man who has lost the will to live, but it’s novel to see her doing it with lines from Shakespeare while wiping his bottom.

If the third act succumbs to sentiment and silliness, two out of three ain’t bad. Dorottya and Michael conspire to have fun, against the predictable disapproval of the others. A kind of love develops, and the movie is never so unsubtle as to state it.  Cox’s timing throughout is superb – a comic masterclass that gives way to storms of temper worthy of Lear. It’s easy to enjoy his playing to the back of the theatre, as she works the front row.