JESSICA TANDY and HUME CRONYN

JESSICA TANDY and HUME CRONYN

Movies that look squarely at romance as a phenomenon of old age are relatively rare, but we watched a worthy exception: the 1994 film “Camilla” with Jessica Tandy in the title role — the next-to-last of her career.
This film, shot in Canada and Georgia, concerns a young married couple from Toronto — Vincent and Freda Lopez (played by Elias Koteas and Bridget Fonda) — and an elderly pair who once were in love but have long been apart.

Vince is an artist and Freda is a musician and composer, but Vince doesn’t take her ambitions seriously and thinks of music only as her hobby. This, of course, is a point of tension in their marriage. The pair go off on a vacation, booking quarters in an outbuilding associated with the home of Camilla Cara, a retired concert violinist whose accounts of her past seem to drift in and out of reality.Watching over Camilla, or hovering over her, is her worrywart son Harold (Maury Chaykin) who produces B movies.

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Camilla and Freda have a common interest in music, and they quickly develop a relationship in which Freda gets the encouragement that she hasn’t gotten from Vince. Vince and Harold also have some common interests, and they embark on a joint business project, but Freda declines to go along when the men leave for Toronto to pursue their scheme. Camilla’s reminiscences often focus on a concert she played in the Winter Garden in Toronto — a concert that perhaps didn’t go quite the way she describes it. After the men leave, Camilla agrees to Freda’s suggestion that they, too, go to Toronto, but for the purpose of attending a concert at the Winter Garden where a soloist will perform the same Brahms piece Camilla played there decades before. Their eventful trip includes a visit to Ewald (Tandy’s husband, Hume Cronyn), a violin maker and Camilla’s former lover.

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As the two women squarely face the realities of their own lives Vincent and Howard, who panic when they return to Savannah and cannot find Camilla and Freda, undertake some reevaluation of their own. The critics didn’t rave about this film, which was directed by Deepa Mehta, but they were of one mind in praising Jessica Tandy’s performance. She died at the age of 85 the same year this film was released, and yet she seems as if she’s at the height of her powers in this role: warmhearted, impish, and passionate. Janet Maslin of the the Times wrote: “While ‘Camilla’ reveres its heroine, hers is hardly a standard great-lady role. Not every octogenarian actress would be game for skinny-dipping, fishing, violin playing and a wonderfully tender bedroom scene with her real-life husband.” This  movie has been criticized as contrived, but whether or not that is valid, Jessica Tandy alone is worth the price of admission.

JESSICA TANDY and BRIDGET FONDA

JESSICA TANDY and BRIDGET FONDA

DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

If blood is, indeed, thicker than water, does the same chemistry apply to bone marrow? That question is at the heart of the matter in “Marvin’s Room,” a 1996 film produced by Robert De Niro and starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Di Caprio, Gwen Verdon, and Hume Cronyn.

The story, which is based on a play by Scott McPherson, concerns the uneasy reunion of  a badly fractured family. The Marvin of the title (Cronyn) has been bed-ridden at his Florida home for 17 years after suffering a stroke. Unable to walk or to speak coherently, Marvin is cared for by his daughter Bessie (Keaton), who also looks after her aunt Ruth (Verdon), who is in the early stages of dementia.

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a marrow transplant. She turns for help to her sister Lee (Streep) although they haven’t communicated since Lee moved to Ohio 20 years ago. Lee has two sons who are potential donors, Hank (DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino).  Lee and Hank have a poisonous relationship which recently reached new depths when he was confined to a mental health facility after deliberately setting fire to their house.

Despite the mutual hard feelings between the sisters, Lee takes her sons to Florida to be tested for compatibility, although Hank is coy about whether he would agree to donate marrow even if he were a match. The atmosphere is uncomfortable and not made any better when Lee considers the possibility that she could inherit this responsibility if Bessie should die.

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

There is an unexpected chemistry between Bessie and Hank, however, and the story turns on that, though not in a simplistic way.

This film was very well received when it first appeared, and with good reason. Although the premise has all the potential for a sob story, it is written and directed (by Jerry Zaks) into a  tense and moving drama. The unusual array of stars (which includes De Niro as Bessie’s doctor) delivers on its promise, too.