Director: Karen Guthrie / 2015 / UK / 87 minutes
Playing Open City Doc Fest 2015 (winner of the Best UK film prize).
The real power of Karen Guthrie’s investigation into her family history, The Closer We Get, lies not just in the impact of the revelations it uncovers, but the fact that it lays bare so many recognisable truths about how complex our feelings towards our relations can become. These are the people we didn’t choose to be related by blood to, but who we grow up thinking we are supposed to love. This film, which sprung from Guthrie’s desire to document the dynamics of her parent’s strange and painful relationship following her elderly mother’s stroke, really captures something of the way in which a family’s secrets and lies, those unspoken truths kept buried out of semi-rational fears of shattering the equilibrium, can suffocate all those involved. Anyone who has ever tiptoed around a subject at the dinner table, who has felt that the air slowly being sucked out of their surroundings by some unacknowledged hurt or offence, can relate to this.
The first footage Guthrie shows us come from recent years, when she was ensconced in her family’s Glasgow home following her mother Ann’s debilitating stroke, which left her immobile and with a damaged memory. We learn that enough time has passed for Guthrie and various other family members, who either live nearby or in the house, to have established a care routine for their mother. But it is soon revealed that this already dismaying scenario has an added level of tension underlying it. Guthrie’s father, former accountant Ian, has mysteriously returned to live with Ann, having separated from her some years ago. Acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, he has brought over his things and settled back into something like the old routine.
Initially, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly unlikeable about Ian, although his booming voice and arrogance grates on everyone, and he seems oddly dispassionate about Ann’s debilitating condition. He clearly doesn’t seem like much use as a caregiver, coming across as being of the old school variety of British manhood, who expected dinner on the table after another late night at the office. However, through voiceover, archive footage of the family from across several decades, and the recently filmed material, we learn from Guthrie just how much damage Ian has caused them all. A compelling and strange story emerges.
Ian was a father and a husband with a secret life, one which he maintained with seemingly no care at all for the impact on his family. Having married Ian in the 1960s after he lured her back from a potential new life in Canada, Ann enjoyed an early carefree romance with a man who seemed confident, funny and successful. But Ian abruptly moved away to take up a multi-year post in Djibouti, beginning a long and increasingly painful period of physical separation from Ann and their four children. The situation suddenly took a left turn when Ian brought back another son born out of wedlock on one of his rare returns, offering no explanation. Guthrie’s archive footage shows the awkward and tense atmosphere that enveloped the household, as the four children suddenly were forced to live with this new family member who had been growing up in parallel to them, with their father unwilling to open up about what he had been doing out in Djibouti. Who was his other woman? Why had he brought his son Campbell over, seemingly on impulse, but not his mistress? Why wouldn’t he talk about it? The family seems to have had to bite down and bear all these unanswered questions for years, with Ann clearly being hit hard.
Viewers wondering why this family stayed together so long, and why Ann would have tolerated such an absent, straying husband, should perhaps first analyse their own behaviour in family situations where fears of snapping family bonds, urges not to rock the boat, and worries about unearthing even more damaging revelations, can create a toxic and suffocating blanket. Guthrie herself in her voiceover is honest about her own failures to confront her father, as well as the aspects of his personality that she feels she has inherited from him such as his waywardness and yearning. As we see Guthrie uncomplainingly cooking and serving Ian his dinner as he idles on his laptop, it is easy to feel flabbergasted, to want to yell at her to tip the food over her father’s lap in disgust. But Guthrie confesses that it is all too easy to fall back into the safer routines of not questioning, and she does not seem capable of cutting her father out of her life. Clearly, this film is her own cathartic way of finally forcing herself to ask some difficult questions, as well as a way of paying a very moving tribute to her mother, whom she praises for having shielded them from as much of this physic damage as she could.
There are further present-day revelations to come about Ian in the second half of the film, some of which are jaw-dropping, and few of which paint him in a flattering light. Yet, interestingly, Guthrie never seems able to demonise the man, even if what emerges is a picture of a father capable of an astonishing degree of emotional callousness. Guthrie sees her father as a man damaged in his own way; she muses that he is a rather pathetic figure in desperate need of love but totally unable to give it out at the same time, as if he is afraid that giving it out would diminish his own supply. Whether or not this is true, maybe not even Ian could say, but on screen he comes across an individual pathologically incapable of any kind of emotional honesty. Why he is this way is just one of the fascinating questions about human behaviour raised by this engaging, powerful film, which serves as a sombre reminder of how pain can echo through generations.