The greatest wisdom is sometimes found in the simplest minds.
Walter is a gentle, kind-faced young man living with his working-class English parents. He holds a job at a packing factory, cleaning floors and moving boxes in the back room. At home, he spends his spare time caring for his pigeons, who are his only friends, the only creatures who treat Walter as a regular human being, with neither pity nor hostility.
Walter is mentally disabled.
As the film opens, we see Walter as a young boy, walking with his mother over a train overpass. As a train approaches, Walter's mother picks him up and places him on the railing, directly over the tracks. Suddenly she's gone, and the chattering of the oncoming train mingles with Walter's terrified yelps. Then, as the train passes, Walter's mother turns and drags the boy from the railing, clutching him to her breast. Did she mean for him to fall? Maybe, maybe not. We get the sense that she herself wasn't sure what she intended.
That is the ambivalence with which everyone who watches over Walter, from his parents to his co-workers and doctors, regards him. For Walter, as obedient and loving as he is, is barely articulate and unable to function on his own, a physically healthy boy warped by nature into something aberrant who inspires both the best and worst instincts in those who encounter him. Even those sympathetic to Walter struggle with their frustration and anger at his pathetic helplessness. As one character says of Walter shortly before abandoning him, "it's like taking a small animal to the vet to get put down." As much as they may love Walter, his disability is a burden heavier than the strongest heart can bear.
Walter's aging parents cannot care for him forever; his father dies, and soon afterward, his mother follows. Afterwards, Walter is found alone in his house, surrounded by pigeons, waiting faithfully for mother, who lies moldering under a heap of feathers and bird excrement, to wake up. Orphaned and alone in the world, Walter is shunted into the care of the British social service system, and his protected life is gone forever.
Loving Walter, directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons), adapted by David Cook from his novel Walter, and starring Ian McKellen, was originally produced as a two-part drama for British television in the early 1980s. (Filmed simultaneously, the two sections were released in 1982 as Walter and in 1983 as Walter & June.) Set during the height of Margaret Thatcher's conservative government, under which social services in Britain were drastically limited, Walter's story was in part an attempt to publicize the ugly consequences of this neglect of the nation's most helpless citizens.
Well-intentioned though they may be, most films about the mentally and physically disabled either drown their subjects in melodrama, or turn their difficult lives into uplifting Reader's Digest fables of "the triumph of the human spirit." Loving Walter does neither. Unremittingly bleak and presented with unblinking honesty, it is a compassionate but unsentimental portrait of lives not fortunate enough to be given the Hollywood treatment.
Though McKellen claims in an interview included on the disc that developing the largely non-verbal role of Walter was not overly difficult, one suspects he's being modest. McKellen is a performer whose eyes blaze with intelligence; it cannot have been easy to dull that light convincingly. In addition, the 40-year-old actor was faced with the challenge of playing Walter as both a teenager and an older man, a task he pulls off flawlessly. Difficult or not, McKellen's performance is genuine and deeply affecting; he inhabits the character with unfaltering conviction.
McKellen's co-stars, among which are such recognizable British character actors as Sarah Miles (Hope and Glory) as a mentally disturbed woman who becomes Walter's lover, and Jim Broadbent (Bridget Jones's Diary, Moulin Rouge) as a crass but not unkind hospital orderly, weigh in with complex, layered performances of their own. Miles, with her wide, fluttering eyes and nervous fragility, resembles one of Walter's pigeons. Broadbent in particular, with his broad, hearty features stuffed into an ambiguous character, makes a lasting impact in a tiny role.
Frears has made a career out of documenting the lives of society's underclass, most recently with the compelling, heart-rending Dirty Pretty Things, and he has a knack for depicting the suffering of the unfortunate without resorting to cheap sentiment or strident moralizing. His protagonists are poignantly human, but Frears avoids the temptation of turning them into beatific Christ figures or walking billboards. Neither does he settle for the easy route of black and white, hero-villain moralizing. Even the most repugnant of his characters are themselves either castoffs from society or pawns of the system. There are no villains as such in this film; as Walter descends into the hell of England's public health institutions, he is not mistreated so much as objectified, dumped into the laps of so-called caregivers who regard him as just another case to be processed and filed away.
Loving Walter was, by design, filmed in a muted, naturalistic style in order to convey a documentary feel. So while the transfer (presented in its original full screen aspect ratio) is extremely clean, marked only by age-related defects and occasional stuttering, the visuals are dull and washed out—and probably more effective for it. The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and shows significant wear, with low-level crackling and hissing—noticeable but not distracting—throughout.
Special features on the disc include interviews with McKellen, Frears, and Cook (Frears keeps it short and sweet, explaining his hands-off approach to directing actors, while McKellen and Cook provide a detailed look into the preparation of the film but tend to drone on a bit); text-only biographies and selected filmographies for members of the cast and crew; and a text-only feature, "Futile Treatments of the Mentally Ill," which highlights some particularly wrongheaded and nasty "cures" devised for the treatment of the mentally disabled.
One glaring omission is the lack of subtitles; while the English accents for the most part should be understandable enough for American audiences, Walter's combination of thick accent and slurred speech can be a challenge, and the film definitely could have benefited from the option of subtitling.
The experience of Loving Walter is not a life-affirming or heartwarming one. There is no warm, fuzzy happy ending for these characters; the dark cloud of helplessness and despair that suffuses his journey through life is interrupted only intermittently by moments of relief and warmth. This isn't a story that requires sensationalization or overstatement. The plain truth of the hopeless lives of those who, unable to help themselves, are at the mercy of a system that cares nothing for them, is enough to horrify all but the most jaded of viewers. A feel-good movie this is not, but as a harrowing glimpse into a world that most of us are too preoccupied to notice, Loving Walter is an unforgettable experience.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
• Interviews with Writer David Cook, Ian McKellen, and Director Stephen Frears
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