Dec 11, 2020

The grandparenting challenge tackled by some older people

Over the years I have – happily – seen an increasing number of movies about older people, and enjoyed most of them. Nonetheless, as my even more movie-addicted brother has pointed out – somewhat unkindly but with a grain of truth – more often than not they are “those cutesy or poignant UK ones about old people finding some new interest or those US ones about old geezers engaging in bank heists etc, [with] Michael Caine, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman or all those other actors trotted out.”

Let him go is a US horse of a very different colour. Set in beautiful rural scenery and starring the now less frequently seen Diane Lane (55), Kevin Costner (65) and Lesley Manville (65), this new movie tackles – in an extreme way, admittedly, and one that is tough viewing at times – a theme that is rarely seen in film but one that is experienced by all too many heroic grandparents: the rescue and care of grandchildren who are in vulnerable circumstances, for any one of a variety of reasons.

In this case, it is a young grandson with a violent stepfather, and an even more violent step-grandmother, a vicious role voraciously eaten up and spat out by the amazingly versatile British actor Lesley Manville (whom I’d only recently also seen in the completely different role of the cynical wife of a lecherous Bob Hope in the revisiting of the feminist onslaught on the 1970 Miss World contest in Misbehaviour).

Before its almost unwatchably violent ending (not really a spoiler – how else was it going to end, with Manville chewing up the scenery as matriarch Blanche Weboy?), this is a film with many gentle touches and the underpinning of a deep, understanding and trusting love demonstrated in gestures rather than words, between grandparents Margaret and George Blackledge. And in addition to its central theme of rescue, it wends its way into the story of a stolen generation of America’s First Nation people, through the friendship they form with a victim of that, and learn of the life he has had to consequently forge for himself as an outsider of both worlds, a story whose Australian version is sadly is all too familiar to us, as part of the tragic history of Aboriginal lives as a result of colonisation.

Less familiar to us is the situation that some grandparents face here. According to a 2014 National Seniors’ submission to the Inquiry into Grandparents who take primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren, in 2011 there were 46,680 grandparent families in Australia. As it noted, “the reasons that grandparents decide to take on, or morph from episodic care to the primary care of their grandchildren are often the result of family breakdowns and fragmented relationships that have been affected by disjointed social structures, fractured social networks and embedded social stratification…. Examples of the unfortunate instances that have led to the formation of grandparent headed households include marriage breakdowns, mental health issues, financial stress, parental incarceration, alcohol and substance abuse, death and frequently, a combination of these.”

In the USA, a 2018 article in The Atlantic reported that “some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, either because of a temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or….substance abuse.”

Universally, such care makes huge demands on the grandparents, although – for the most part – they take on the responsibility with love and dedication. In Let him go, when Margaret becomes determined to – somehow – bring home their grandson, George challenges her with the realities of what would be involved in their becoming the full time carers of a three-year-old, at their age. Many grandparents, whether or not in that situation, would be able to relate to the dilemma faced by older people in such circumstances, but it’s an issue that I’ve never seen raised in a popular movie before, and for that alone it’s worth biting the bullet and making it through this ultimately thoughtful cinematic experience.

Anne Ring ©2020

Image: Focus Features.

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