Sally Field’s Harrowing Weeks

Two Weeks is another of those Fatal Disease of the Week movies about death, grief and saying goodbye forever that even the television networks have abandoned. In feature films, every dying movie star smiling bravely through her tears, from Margaret Sullavan in No Sad Songs For Me to Meryl Streep in One True Thing, has been diagnosed with one true thing for sure: box-office homicide. Now it’s Sally Field’s turn. Oblivious to all that, first-time director Steve Stockman (who also wrote the script) has used his own autobiographical experience. The usually perky, always effective and never less than honest Ms. Field plays a mother dying of ovarian cancer, whose four children descend upon the family home in North Carolina while the camera records the last two weeks of her life, divided by days. The result is a sincere film full of fine performances, minutely observed details and unimpeachable good intentions that very few people will be able to endure.

Ms. Field’s character is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill mother. Neither a garden-club belle nor a land’s-sakes-alive-I-smell-something-burning-in-the-oven domestic, she’s a methodical, no-nonsense pragmatist who wants to tie up all the loose ends without making knots. She hires her own nurses, makes her demands for cremation, and writes her own obituary. When the cancer eats her digestive system and her bowels malfunction, she is still in love with life enough to order spare ribs, savor the flavor and spit out the rest. That’s the good part. The bad part involves the mental and physical disintegration that turns her into a Brussels sprout as the cancer drags on, plunging her in and out of consciousness while she moans and hallucinates and controls her pain with a push-button morphine drip.

Meanwhile, her devoted daughter Em (Julianne Nicholson) organizes her siblings in a 24/7 watch that involves cleaning up the vomit, changing the sheets and other gruesomely detailed chores. Oldest son Keith (Ben Chaplin), a recovering alcoholic; middle son Barry (Tom Cavanagh, who talks the way he does in Gray Matters, with machine-gun fire that isn’t always coherent); and youngest son Matthew (Glenn Howerton)—accompanied by his pouting, jealous wife (Clea DuVall), whom the rest of the family despises—all react to the ordeal in separate ways. They make some major decisions quickly, like shipping the ashes and closing out their mother’s bank account by forging her signature, to avoid probate lawyers. But they also argue over who gets to keep the leftover morphine and who gets the Percodan. Old friends drop by with tuna casseroles to reminisce with their mother about their old boyfriends and the size of their johnsons. Throughout all of these daunting daily punishments, they ignore the feelings and emotions of their stepfather, who has shared the house with their mom for 14 years. Director Stockman gets it down right, while we suffer through every minute of it.

I admire the integrity and the artistry that illuminated this film, and I most keenly appreciate Ms. Field’s total lack of self-indulgence and refusal to give in to the temptation to beg the audience for pity. But still. How fulfilling can it be to spend half of the movie turning green and puking all over the place, her open mouth a grotesque mask of torture like a George Grosz drawing, and the other half of the movie in a coma with the rasping sound of a death rattle? Somewhere in all of this agony, a point is made about not only the dying but the caregivers, and a question is posed about the problem of where to draw the line between responsibility to a dying parent and responsibility to oneself. Some sympathy must be reserved for the survivors. Not for the weak of heart and not for anyone seeking lighthearted fare, Two Weeks is a worthy, thoughtful film about grave issues, but I’d be surprised if it lasts even two weeks in the theaters.

Full of Grace

Beautifully made and deeply inspiring, Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace is a captivating historical drama about William Wilberforce, the impassioned member of the British Parliament in the 18th century who devoted his political career to ending the slave trade.

Forcefully played by the excellent Welsh star Ioan Gruffud (ah, those Welsh names—impossible to pronounce, spell or remember!), Wilberforce is first seen in 1797 as a disillusioned shell of a man, once a political leader whose name was synonymous with bravery and idealism, one of the few Parliamentarians with a conscience and a sense of humanity and justice for the poor and disenfranchised, leading the abolitionists in their crusade to end the slavery that had become a common practice in England’s new colonies in the New World. As the narrative moves backwards 15 years, we see the younger Wilberforce, a firebrand heralded at a young age for his sense of integrity, fearless in the face of adversity and undaunted by the moral indifference of his greedy, ruthless fellow Parliamentarians, which included Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Clarence (another masterful performance by the quixotic chameleon Toby Jones). His reform-movement principles were strengthened by John Newton (the garrulous Albert Finney), a former slave-ship captain for 20 years who repented and became a minister of the gospel, and reinforced by his supportive best friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who became the youngest prime minister of England at the age of 24.

Charming and attractive, Wilberforce married Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), an early advocate of women’s rights and famed champion for liberal causes, who was so opposed to slavery that she wouldn’t allow anyone in her presence to use sugar in their tea if it came from Jamaican plantations that used slave labor. She inspired her husband to keep up his fight even after his bills were defeated, adopting the hymn “Amazing Grace” as their united theme song. The movie explores their colorful home life in a manor house filled with animals that were encouraged to run free (to the horror of visiting guests), as well as Wilberforce’s activism, marriage and long, arduous struggle to pass laws to abolish slavery in the House of Commons.

Depictions of the frank and harrowing realities of life and death on slave ships—the humiliation, degradation and cruelty suffered by slaves with broken hips and shoulders dislocated by shackles—are scenes that are not for the faint-hearted. But the elegance of Mr. Apted’s direction, the balanced script by Steven Knight and a tremendous cast that includes Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell and the versatile Mr. Jones (far removed from his electrifying performance as Truman Capote in Infamous) all conspire to keep you riveted through every defeat and sabotage, and when the film culminates in Wilberforce’s final, decisive showdown against his political enemies, I daresay you’ll be cheering. A stunning tribute to the victory of good over evil that is appealing to both the heart and the mind.

Golden Gates

Beyond the Gates revisits the fiendish barbarity of the Rwandan genocide that slaughtered 800,000 Africans in 1994. It was a time when the persecuted Tutsis left their homes and fled from the ruling Hutus to whatever safe haven they could find, watched over by only a few scattered peacekeeping forces dispatched by the United Nations, who did little more than watch the massacres with indifference. One refuge was a tourist hotel that was taken over by its own employees, as dramatized in the film Hotel Rwanda. Another was a secondary school in Kigali called the Ecole Technique Officiele, once an army base that was turned into a refugee camp to shelter 2,500 Belgian soldiers, schoolchildren and innocent Tutsi citizens while the rampaging Hutu militia clamored for blood, waving machetes outside the school gates.

Beyond the Gates, directed by the excellent Michael Caton-Jones, chronicles the events that took place within the school before and after the U.N. troops withdrew, taking the white sympathizers with them. John Hurt plays the dedicated Catholic priest who remains behind to die with the Rwandans he pledged to protect. Hugh Dancy, the hot new British dreamboat currently starring on Broadway in the revival of Journey’s End, is the idealistic young teacher who cares deeply for the doomed students and friends whose lives he has affected, but who flees with the diplomats, expatriates and U.N. troops in an act of moral cowardice to save his own. When the Tutsis were deserted to a reign of terror, the Hutus moved through the gates with knives, machine guns and grenades. David Belton and Richard Alwyn, two of the film’s writers, were among the few journalists who survived. This movie is their tribute to the 2,500 victims they knew at the school, some of whom actually lived to work on this film as actors, electricians, grips, wardrobe assistants, prop masters and assistant cameramen, and to tell their saga without embellishment. The result is a movie about choice, fate and failure that submerged the world in shame.

That shame is still being felt, suffered and written about by people who have not forgiven the lack of response by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, which even went so far as to lobby the U.N. Security Council to ensure that no further U.N. forces were sent to Rwanda. (The excuse was that they were too otherwise occupied in Bosnia.) The bigger political issues and the refusal of the Western world to intervene gnaw at the edges of this movie throughout, but it is really the human portraits of the people that keep you engrossed. Hugh Dancy’s Joe Connor is movingly torn between his loyalty to the children who trust him and his need to flee the approaching apocalypse. He’s naïve, fearless and fair. He’s also the one who asks, “Where is God here, in all this suffering?” But in the end, like so many whites in Rwanda, he fails to stick around to find out. John Hurt’s noble Father Christopher, who stays behind where his heart and soul are, is based on a Bosnian priest named Vjeko Curic, who risked his life daily smuggling Tutsi women and children out of Rwanda in the bottom of the school’s delivery truck, and kept BBC correspondents Belton and Alwyn alive after the invasion of the Hutus to tell their story, first on television, then in Beyond the Gates. It is certainly a story worth telling, although it’s no secret that we live in a world where the cultured, inquisitive and humane are vastly outnumbered by brain-dead slugs. This is sad, because Beyond the Gates is educational as well as inspired—a valuable contribution to the power of the cinema of truth. Sally Field’s Harrowing Weeks