What They Had (4 stars)

What They Had

Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon head up an expertly observed family drama

Actress Elizabeth Chomko (TV's Common Law) makes her assured directorial debut with this expertly observed family drama which makes the most of its incredible cast. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon take centre stage as the adult siblings coming to blows over how best to care for their ailing mother; years of resentment and rivalry bubble hotly to the surface as they struggle to take charge.

Swank is Bridget, whose attempts to cope with her flatlining marriage are put under increasing strain when she returns to her childhood home to help her brother Nicky (a phenomenal Shannon) deal with the worsening Alzheimer's of their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner). It's a difficult situation, made even more complicated by the absolute refusal of their father Burt (Robert Forster) to seek outside help and, with battle lines being drawn and no compromise in sight, the family seems to teeter on the brink of collapse.

While such narratives so often tip into melodrama, Chomko's clear-eyed approach brings with it a grounding, and deeply moving, sense of authenticity. The devastation of this cruel illness cuts through the heart of the story, spotlit most effectively not in Ruth's confusion or her family's attempts to navigate it but in the shafts of lucidity that occasionally remind her of everything she has lost – small but devastating moments of grief and heartache.

But there's also much time devoted to the often humorous realities of family life, which don't falter even in the face of such life-changing events, the verbal sparring which volleys between Bridget and Nicky, the dinner table missives, the genuine love which underpins every word whether angry or affectionate. Furthermore, there are astute observations about the dynamics of a family in which the rule of an overbearing father has set a lifelong course that's almost impossible to change; it's a film that reminds us that the ties which bind can easily suffocate unless we find the strength to push back.

General release from Fri 1 Mar.

What They Had

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 41min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Elizabeth Chomko
  • Cast: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Taissa Farmiga
  • UK release: 1 March 2019

Bridget (Swank) and her brother Nicky (Shannon) have to deal with the worsening Alzheimer’s of their mother Ruth (Danner). Chomko’s clear-eyed approach steers the movie away from melodrama and there’s time devoted to the often humorous realities of family life. An expertly observed family drama.