Candid and Convincing
Aurora Borealis tells the story of twenty-something Duncan (Joshua Jackson), who has been struggling since his father’s death ten years ago. Although his grandparents, Ronald (Donald Sutherland) and Ruth (Louise Fletcher), moved to the city to be closer to him and his brother, he finds it hard to come to terms with his grandfather’s deteriorating health. His progressing Parkinson’s disease and signs of dementia has Ruth worried that soon ‘the big A’ – Alzheimer’s disease – will start crippling him too. As they both had experience with Ronald’s brother going through Alzheimer’s, their worry is particularly grounded. Donald Sutherland portrays Ronald’s character and struggle with such skill and sophistication that it is hard to believe that he does not suffer from the debilitating illness himself.
To make matters all the more realistic, the film brings to life an utterly awkward Thanksgiving dinner. It pinpoints the condescending manner and tone that a lot of elderly and ill people are approached with by their broader family, acquaintances or strangers. Some members of the family treat Ronald at the dinner table as if he couldn’t understand or hear them. They talk about moving him into a home, as if he wasn’t sitting across the table and they talk to him in the most patronizing manner possible, as if he couldn’t comprehend anything. Thankfully, the scene has a comical twist to it when Ronald confronts them about their ways, but them being ridiculed doesn’t make one forget the pain of Ronald being treated like a shell of a human just a few seconds prior.
While Ronald still has his wit and ways to cope with his illness, it gets the better of him increasingly more often. He can be impatient, inappropriate and snaps angrily when something is not going his way. Though the headline “I just don’t like to see him like that” is Duncan’s thought, it is clearer than day that no one struggles more with how Ronald is changing than he himself.
Courageous and Compassionate
“I don’t like people seeing me like this. This isn’t me. Do you think this is me?”
We see Ronald struggle with the simplest aspects of life. Tasks such as going to the toilet or eating a sandwich now require great effort. Names and dates escape him and he has a hard time telling past and present apart. It is heart-breaking to see him realize time and time again that his son, whom he keeps recognizing in Duncan, had passed away. Ronald wants to avoid becoming like his brother – ‘like a baby’, as he puts it – and finds that his only solution to free himself and his wife of that painful future is to commit suicide before he regresses further. The topic of elderly suicide is a very brave one to take on and the movie doesn’t shy away from it. Ronald shares his wish with Duncan first tentatively, then later in complete detail why and how he wants to end his own life so desperately. Facing an illness that progresses steadily, and realising that while his body is suffering, it will soon get the better of his mind as well is an unthinkable future to the once active and quick-witted Ronald. The tragedy of a hopelessly ill man fully aware of what awaits him is truly agonizing to watch.
The main focus of the movie is Duncan finding his way in life as his grandfather’s dependence on him brings them much closer together. Feeling like he failed his beloved late son, Ronald realizes that his last grand purpose before moving on is to help his grandson become the man he could be if he wasn’t weighed down by the pain of the past. Despite his agony, impatience and anger with his illness, he seems to find solace in the thought of leaving this life-changing legacy. To fulfil his ambition Kate (Juliette Lewis), the lively and charming healthcare assistant, becomes part of his plan to open Duncan’s eyes to the endless possibilities that life has to offer. Their relationship acts as catalyst in Duncan finding his happier and more content self to pursue his dreams, thus making Ronald’s last wish comes true.