Two elderly residents at a nursing home are found in bed together, naked and in an embrace. The family of one of the women, Lillian, is called in by the home’s authorities, who must figure out what to do.
But as the discussion ensues, long-simmering familial tensions arise, revealing fractures between the siblings trying to decide the fate of their mother. At heart is the question: is it love, or is it the muddled delusions of a mind caught in dementia?
Writer-director Jamieson Pearce’s beautifully aching drama intertwines a love story with a family story about aging, parents and children, capturing the reversal of power that encroaching mortality creates in a familial unit and asking questions about the relationship between love, memory and self.
The atmosphere of the film, from the visuals to the writing to the performance, is gorgeously muted, rooted in the subtle but remarkable visuals. The lovely, melancholic cinematography and graceful camerawork create a sense of time and self suspended, particularly in the opening sequence: all that exists for Lillian is the touch and tenderness between her and her lover Mary. It’s a fragile yet frank scene, and it hangs over the rest of the film, framing the drama with profound philosophical questions.
The look and feel seem almost elegiac as if the film itself is a moment becoming a memory even as it unfurls in the present tense. Each image is composed with care and precision, with a genuine delicacy of touch. As a result, the story is both poetic, with visual details often taking on an almost talismanic weight and significance.
But the writing and performances have their moments of spikiness and conflict, especially as the characters’ perspectives and agendas unfold. The dialogue teases out great moments of irony and humor, particularly in how exasperating families can be, and in unraveling revelations of the past. Actors Angie Milliken and Jo Turner portray brother and sister with a palpable connection and the worn-in thorniness specific to siblings with a history of love, disagreements and grievances between them.
But overall, as the discussion unfolds, we slowly become aware not only of the history between this family, but the way Lillian herself is an object of conversation — one increasingly treated almost like a child, or an object, with little discussion of her as a person with free will and complexity of history and psychology. A significant question for the family that emerges is whether or not the love between Lillian and Mary is real, or if this is a case of an addled mind acting inappropriately, or lost in the past.
The answer, of course, is both simpler and more complicated than it seems, perhaps because the assumptions underlying the question are themselves too simplistic, though the situation may demand a concrete answer. “Strangers” itself doesn’t offer an easy solution or interpretation, preferring instead to remind us of the human being whose fate is being decided. Lillian has spent most of the film receding from consciousness as a complex human presence — a character talked about instead of experienced.
But the final remarkable sequence of “Strangers” restores her primacy, both to the film’s consciousness and the viewer’s awareness. With a gentle, steady sense of portraiture — and economical but remarkable performance by actor Melissa Jaffer — the arresting final shots of Lillian are both haunting and soulful, striking up a remarkable chord of empathy and creating a mute but eloquent appeal — if not to be understood, then to be fully seen in all of her humanity.