Reviewed by GREG KING
Showcasing some strong performances from a stellar cast, the wonderful tear jerker Marvin’s Room is a marvellously written, rich and honest drama that should not be missed.
Scott McPherson originally wrote the play Marvin’s Room as a way of articulating his own feelings and the emotional turmoil he experienced while watching his lover slowly die from AIDS. McPherson had also watched numerous other relatives slowly waste away from painful terminal diseases, and the film is informed with that deeply felt sense of personal anguish, helplessness and pain experienced when loved ones or close friends die. However, it also shows how tragedy or death can, ironically, bring a family closer together and heal old wounds.
Marvin’s Room centres around the bitter relationship between two sisters who have maintained an aloof coldness and distance for two decades, and shows how love and humour can heal even the deepest wounds. Although never really close as children, the gulf between the two sisters widened when Bessie (Diane Keaton, superb in her Oscar nominated role) chose to remain in Florida and look after her ailing parents, while Lee (Meryl Streep) left home to establish her own independence and lead her own life in another state. The two have deliberately lost contact, but when Bessie herself is diagnosed with leukaemia Lee reluctantly returns home for a brief and emotionally charged visit, bringing her two children with her.
Lee’s disconnected relationship with Bessie has been reflected in her own troubled relationships with her children – the angry and rebellious Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the quieter and painfully withdrawn younger son Charlie (Hal Scardino, from The Indian In The Cupboard, etc). Hank is full of anger and his unfocused emotions have largely been brought on by his tumultuous and fiery relationship with the self centred and shallow Lee. Hank has been confined to a psychiatric institution for adolescents after burning down Lee’s house, but somehow Bessie forms a relationship with him that tames him and helps him come to terms with his own past and his ambivalent relationship with his mother.
But it is the renewed bond that slowly develops between the sisters in this moment of suffering and uncertainty that provides the emotional catharsis that finally brings them together. Bessie has never felt regret for her decision to subjugate her own personal life and happiness to play nurse maid for her sick parents because it has enriched her life, while Lee comes to realise just how empty and emotionally sterile her own life has been in comparison.
Marvin’s Room is a fascinating and touching exploration of a complex sibling relationship, and is written with a rare honesty that unearths some real emotional truths about relationships between families. McPherson wrote the screenplay treatment of the play before he too succumbed to AIDS in 1992, and it has taken four years to finally bring this moving and emotionally rich drama to the screen.
This powerful and emotionally draining drama is essentially a character driven piece, and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, making his feature film directorial debut, has assembled a strong ensemble cast whose rich and perceptive performances enhance the material. Keaton is superb in a rare dramatic role and she bears the brunt of the film’s emotional depths. Streep offers solid support as the more selfish Lee, who has been hurt and scarred by life and has buried her real feelings beneath a tough and impenetrable exterior. DiCaprio has some explosive moments as the truculent and rebellious Hank and his richly nuanced and intelligent performance further enhance his reputation as, arguably, the finest actor of his generation. Robert De Niro, who was instrumental in producing this film version through his own Tribeca company in association with veteran producers Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal, also takes a smaller and more comical role here as the affable but clumsy Dr Wally.