The Time of their Lives sounds a particularly jaunty title. And, for much of the film, this is quite accurate. But not quite accurate enough – the screenplay often goes beneath the surface of the time of their lives to some very serious personal themes. Which makes this comedy-drama that much more interesting.
The naming of the stars is certainly most arresting. Joan Collins has been in films for almost 65 years and made this film at the age of 83 (though, probably, her character, Helen, is meant to be only 73 – and she does get away with it). Whether the public knows the real Joan Collins is a good question. What the public does see is Joan Collins, the celebrity, full of glamour, fond of posing, not the least bit shy with people let alone in front of the camera, drawing on her career as a starlet in the 1950s (and this film has a poster of a fictitious film, Morty and Me, made in that long ago time, the poster reminding us of how glamorous Joan Collins was in her past), and drawing on her particular “bitchiness” from her character, Alexis, in Dynasty. She plays this character here to the hilt – and beyond!
Which means that the name of Pauline Collins evokes quite a different image. At the time of making the film, Pauline Collins was only 76 – but not quite looking it either. She is most famous for her Oscar-nominated performance as Shirley Valentine in 1989. She won a lot of fans with this role and is probably remembered warmly for it.
The other older stars are Franco Nero, one of the heartthrob Italian stars of the 1960s, continuing into the present. The other is Ronald Pickup who audiences will remember from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films. Also in the cast is Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter (in fact, Vanessa Redgrave is married to Franco Nero though he has no scenes with his stepdaughter).
And the plot? The core of it is a variation on Joan Collins’s life and career, an ageing but faded star (that is the fiction part for the real Joan Collins), little-known now and wanting to revive her career, especially by going to the funeral in France of the director of her most famous film. But she has no money and she is somewhat disabled, hip difficulties, a walking stick. (And there is nothing like seeing Joan Collins with a walking stick but, when the plot is on her side, able to get rid of the stick and walk steadily!).
She is on a jaunt to the seaside with a busload of elderly characters, one of whom is desperate to drive the bus – and does get the opportunity in a hurdy-gurdy kind of way. They have a concentration camp kind of travel director. In the meantime, Priscilla, Pauline Collins, is having a very difficult time with her cranky husband, Frank (Pickup) and the memories of their son who drowned at the age of four and who would be now 40. Helen notices them bickering at the store. But then Priscilla helps Helen onto the bus with her disability and the door shuts and she is whisked off to the seaside.
Helen tells her story, they have tea together, Helen steals her purse – with Priscilla wanting to go home but then in pursuit, deciding to go with the flow, going into performance to get onto the ferry for France (Helen pretending to faint, Priscilla scurrying on).
The rest of the film has their adventures in France, including Priscilla diving into the water to save a little boy and reprimanding the boy’s mother for not paying attention. Frank and their daughter see Priscilla on television and start out for France.
Stranded at night without petrol, they are rescued by a wealthy man, Alberto (Franco Nero,) driving in pyjamas. He is hospitality personified, Priscilla grateful, Helen flirting, to little avail.
The funeral does not go as predicted though there is a plot development which the audience might have suspected at some stage.
So, the two women do have something of the time of their lives – but not quite. What is Helen to do if she does not revitalise her career? What is Priscilla to do, go back home with Frank to a dead marriage, or…? (Audiences have probably been thinking of the plot of Shirley Valentine all the way through and how Priscilla’s adventures and predicament are a new version of Shirley’s!).
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting