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Film Title

Marvin’s Room


Jerry Zaks


  • Diane Keaton as Bessie
  • Meryl Streep as Lee
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Hank
  • Hal Scardino as Charlie
  • Robert De Niro as Dr Wally
  • Hume Cronyn as Marvin
  • Gwen Verdon as Aunt Ruth

A film based on a play that covers themes of family, illness and forgiveness, Marvin’s Room is a beautifully affecting movie that earns the laughs and tears it elicits in the audience through the natural work from an accomplished cast.

Marvin’s Room revolves around two estranged sisters; sweet and sensitive Bessie and driven Lee. Bessie lives in Florida, where she takes care of her bedridden father Marvin and dizzy Aunt Ruth. She has been doing this for twenty years now, yet hasn’t taken the time to really think of herself once. Lee is the more rebellious sister, who has worked hard and wants to get her life into a sense of order, complete with her two sons Hank and Charlie. Just as she appears to be, her troubled son Hank burns the house down and is institutionalized. His increasingly erratic and antagonistic behaviour towards his mother who he blames for divorcing his absent father does nothing to help, with Lee really hitting breaking point over what to do. It is around this time that Bessie discovers that she has leukaemia and that she needs a bone marrow transplant. Despite not having spoken to her sister in over twenty years, Bessie implores Lee to come and visit her. She hopes that she can find a match for the operation and hopefully bury the hatchet with her sister. Lee, even though she still has her differences with her sister, packs up her kids from Ohio and heads to Florida. The reunion is far from what you’d call an easy one for everyone involved. Bessie feels resentment towards Lee for not helping take care of their father, while Lee feels that Bessie is judging her for not being as sensitive a person as she is and thinks that Bessie has given too much of her life to caring for her family. Hank is also still troubled and distant from everyone, though he finds comfort in the form of Bessie who he believes listens to him more than his mother. Old wounds are opened as Bessie and Lee try to reconnect and Hank starts to mature in the presence of his Aunt. Reconciliation and understanding could be on their way, if everyone can finally accept the others and unearth a kinship that has long been missing.

Jerry Zaks may not have much of a cinematic finesse in his approach to the film, yet his eye is more focused on character and development( at which he scores points.) the natural and quietly emotional way that it tells the story that truly makes Marvin’s Room a moving experience. What is most surprising about Marvin’s Room is that it has a welcome dose of humour in it. It has you laughing one minute, then in tears in a heartbeat. And while this could have turned out to be a bad thing, it is actually one of the biggest successes of the film. It really brings you into the piece and highlights the naturalism and summarizes how unpredictable life can be for all of us. Dysfunctional family and the ways in which they can falter, but ultimately be reunited in unexpected circumstances is played out in accomplished fashion. Sure there are confrontations between characters, but they thankfully don’t go over the top and remain within the context of the film to its benefit. Some could argue that it is a sentimental movie, but it stays just on the right side of that to make a film that celebrates life and connection with people we never thought we’d understand. The odd mawkish moment here and there can be swept under the carpet when the film is as affecting and nuanced as Marvin’s Room. Don’t let the seemingly made-for-TV sounding plot detract you from the film, as it traverses well above manipulative manhandling of the audience in favour of soulful observation. In fact while illness forms the main crux of the story, it is the nature of family and that is most effective and compliments the scenes of disease and possible death. Marvin’s Room isn’t flawless by any means as some of the pacing is off and I might have liked it if the film ran a bit longer. But all in all, it’s a very accomplished and emotion driven story that gets your attention through the laughs, tears and smiles. Rachel Portman supplies the evolving music of this piece; splendidly supporting the quietly stirring and bittersweet parts of the film through rising rhythms and emotive piano.

Diane Keaton beautifully heads the cast with a quietly and movingly acted role of the caregiver sister finding out she herself is ill. A nuanced and sincere amount of feeling is embodied by Keaton as Bessie sensitively attempts to be brave. Genuine decency can often be difficult play without going into overt politeness, luckily Diane Keaton manages to portray goodness stunningly. There is no slipping into overly saintly or martyr like here, just a heartfelt delivery. There is just something very warm and soulful about Diane Keaton here that makes it stand out as one of her best performances. Meryl Streep is on fine form as the chain-smoking, fiercely independent sister who is trying to keep her life together, yet has to come to terms with responsibility for probably the first time. The part of Lee is a flawed woman who can be self-interested and impatient(not to mention at the end of her tether), but with Streep in the part, we get to observe how her brash outer shell has been made by her own experiences and how she really is more than a little vulnerable underneath it all. Streep works wonderfully alongside the luminous Keaton, genuinely conveying the distance and eventual closeness the siblings acquire over the course of the film. A young Leonardo DiCaprio holds his own against his older co-stars with a performance of anger, damage and eventually reflection. DiCaprio nails the troubled persona of teenager Hank and finds a feeling of loneliness and wanting for attention in there, which makes him hit it off with Bessie as he feels she gets him. DiCaprio brings layers and forceful feeling to the part which benefits from it considerably. Hal Scardino has the more modest part of the younger brother whose often buried in a book, but Scardino makes the most of it to play off DiCaprio’s intensity well. Providing amusing support is a genial Robert De Niro, portraying the yet often inelegant doctor who gives Bessie her diagnosis and whose attempts at being positive are sometimes anything but. Hume Cronyn, without uttering a word, conveys the helpless feeling of illness in old age, while Gwen Verdon is funny and sweetly touching as the scatterbrained Aunt.

Heartwarming and sincere, plus sporting a great cast of actors doing some lovely work, Marvin’s Room is a successful and touching testament to the themes of redeeming oneself and appreciating life.