Director: Sally Potter
Cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Laura Linney, Salma Hayek
Runtime: 1 hr 26 mins
Rating: PG13 (Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 6 May 2021
Synopsis: Sally Potter’s film follows a day in the life of Leo (Javier Bardem) and his daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), as she grapples with the challenges of her father’s chaotic mind. As they weave their way through New York City, Leo’s journey takes on a hallucinatory quality as he floats through alternate lives he could have lived, leading Molly to wrestle with her own path as she considers her future.
Coming after the excellent character drama ‘The Father’, it’s hard not to compare this similarly-themed chamber piece by writer-director Sally Potter. Both deal with the subject of dementia, and both unfold from the perspective of the lead character struggling to cope with the disease. But whereas Florian Zeller opted to demonstrate such a patient’s slips of memory, confusions of identity and conflations of place and event, Potter fractures the narrative to show her character’s present as well as two alternate realities which could just as easily have come to pass.
As its title suggests, ‘The Roads Not Taken’ is a meditation on how differently a person’s life could have been lived, had he or she chosen a certain path in life. Leo (Javier Bardem) is a writer suffering from dementia, who now lives in a grim New York apartment while being attended by a carer. The only family that is around is his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), who over the course of a single day, escorts him to the dentist, the eye doctor, and when he wets his pants, a big-box store to buy new trousers. But alongside his reality, Leo is in fact entertaining two other alternate presents.
One of them imagines that he is back in Mexico with his first wife and childhood sweetheart Dolores (Salma Hayek); alas, that episode is marked by tragedy as we later on discover, and without giving too much away, let’s just say that it is the reason why he had decided thereafter to emigrate to the United States. The other imagines him on an idyllic Greek island, and we soon learn that he had indeed travelled there when Molly was just a baby, although why he did so and the consequences of it is only revealed towards the end of the movie.
It should not be surprising that those two alternate presents are neither coincidental or simply a figment of Leo’s fractured mind; indeed, these are in fact his regrets surfacing at a time when his consciousness is unable to suppress them further. We would add that they lend unexpected poignancy to the relationship between Leo and Molly, not least in illustrating how the latter has decided to remain by her father’s side in his time of need in spite of the former’s behaviour before, which is in stark contrast to how unsympathetically Molly’s mother Rita (Laura Linney) treats him.
Notwithstanding the sentiments at the end, we’d be frank that ‘The Roads Not Taken’ is not an easy watch. For its good first hour, you’d be less intrigued than frustrated at the multiple storylines that you are unable to immediately make sense of next to one another. It is also challenging to fully empathise with Leo, who unlike say Anthony Hopkins’ similarly afflicted character in ‘The Father’, shuffles around throughout the film being mostly uncommunicative, either grunting or hardly speaking at all in his dysphasia.
That is not to dismiss Bardem’s performance, which is often intense and fervent as you would expect of the veteran Spanish actor. The same goes for Fanning, who builds a charming rapport with Bardem with a emotionally honest and spirited act. Their scenes together anchor the film with heart and purpose, so it is in the stretches that Bardem is alone as Leo that the movie loses its focus and its pull. There is also a subplot involving Molly’s work situation, and Fanning nails the role by illuminating the tension between work and life that any working adult will be able to identify with.
Like we said at the beginning, it is inevitable that ‘The Roads Not Taken’ will be compared with ‘The Father’, and between the two, we must admit that we liked the latter a lot better. There’s no denying Potter has technique, but equally it is hardly as compelling as a chamber piece and rather vexing in its experimentalism. Don’t get us wrong – this is still a road worth taking, but we suspect some may find the journey a lot less fulfilling than what you may be expecting.
(Not quite as compelling as 'The Father', this experimental drama of suffering, piety and regrets thrives on Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning's illuminating performances)
Review by Gabriel Chong