Hazel McHaffie


The Revenant

Even when I make a conscious effort to switch off my brain and just relax, life somehow has a habit of steering me back into work-mode!

I’m at the stage of being utterly absorbed in the lives of my fictional characters (no, I do not want another cup of coffee/lunch/a break/to pack up for the night!! … please do not ring/call/interrupt/challenge/speak to me in any way or by any means until I emerge from my fictional world and readjust to yours!) and at the end of a long writing stint I feel pretty zapped. I know my subconscious can be relied on to work on issues during sleep and I can safely leave it to do so, but sometimes I crave a real switched-off complete break. That was the case one night this week so I decided to watch a DVD I bought many moons ago: The Revenant. (Just in case this word has escaped your personal lexicon, it means a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.)

It’s a raw, brutal, stunning film. (Click on the picture for the official trailer.)

‘Everything screams primal in “The Revenant” – the lethal force of a wild animal, the savagery of man against man, the sustaining power of revenge, and the beauty of vast, snowbound lands seemingly untouched since the Creation.’ (Wall Street Journal)

It won three Golden Globes and considerable acclaim from critics and the public alike. Loosely (I use the word advisedly) based on a true story, and a work of fiction, about the main protagonist, a legendary explorer on a quest for survival and justice, it’s not an authentic documentary of a hero’s life, but I wasn’t looking for verifiable reality or hard facts, just some escape. A subject, then, far removed from my usual interests, so it should fit the bill perfectly. Settle down in a comfy chair, pick up the knitting, here goes …

A brief synopsis of the story line first. While exploring the uncharted wilderness of the Rocky mountains in 1823, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) sustains life-threatening injuries from a brutal grizzly bear attack. A treacherous member of his hunting team (Tom Hardy) kills Glass’ young half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves Glass himself for dead. His beloved native American wife has also been murdered, and, grief-stricken, fuelled by vengeance, the legendary fur trapper treks through the snowy terrain to track down the man who betrayed him. (The real Hugh Glass really did crawl to safety for 200 miles over 6 weeks.)

Some reviewers have been pretty sniffy about the effects but I, in my naivety, was lost in admiration of the stupendous cinematography. And how the actors coped in the deep snow and freezing glacial rivers – yes, really in I can’t begin to understand. But, I can vouch for the authenticity of the setting; it was mostly filmed in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia where we were recently. The filmmakers have captured the essence of Glass’ struggles, and the sheer grit needed to survive in this vast uncharted terrain, incredibly well. And the footage of him climbing inside the still-steaming carcass of a newly-dead eviserated horse for warmth, or being driven off the edge of a cliff, or being ripped and shaken by a grizzly, or guzzling raw buffalo liver, vividly convey the desperation that drove such pioneers, and the sheer forces of nature they faced.

So, a completely different scenario from my usual medical ethics work, huh? You’d think. But you’d be wrong. As was I!

Glass sees one of the trappers attempting to kill his beloved son. Would he be justified in killing the attacker if that would save the boy’s life?

When Glass is severely injured in the brutal grizzly bear attack, the trappers consider leaving the dying man behind to save their own lives. Would this be morally defensible?

Some of the men feel it would be a humane thing to shoot Glass to put him out of his suffering after the bear attack. Would it be ethically right to do so?

Glass can’t speak but his eyes are open. One of the trappers tells him to blink if he wants to die. Glass stares back wide-eyed for ages but eventually blinks. Would this be deemed informed consent?

The chap deputed to actually shoot to kill, says someone should put a rag over the dying Glass’ eyes; he can’t do the deed looking into the face of a man he knows. What does this say about mercy killing?

When Glass eventually catches up with his son’s killer, a bloody fight ensues, but in the end Glass leaves vengeance to God, as one of the indigenous Indians taught him. Does this translate to today’s issues?

Just a few challenges to give you a flavour. But hey, it’s an absorbing film anyway. Enjoy!



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I hinted last week that I’d like to tell you about another dramatic exploration of an ethical issue which impressed me. So here goes.

Now, as you know, I’ve read a mini-library-full of books about suffering and the right to die and euthanasia and related issues, but the film Amour is one of the most affecting explorations of the topic I’ve encountered. I want to share it with you, but I should warn you that this blog does contain spoilers.

AmourAmour is in French so I needed the subtitles, but that didn’t detract from the power of the story. It centres around an octogenarian couple, Georges and Anne, retired music teachers, facing the horrors of Anne’s debilitating and progressively diminishing illness. It’s been described as ‘one of the most honest, intimate and deeply affecting portraits of love ever committed to film‘, and it has deservedly won many awards – including an OSCAR and 2 BAFTAs.

Curious really, you might think, given the age and condition of the main protagonists (they’re both in their eighties in real life as well as in the film), the rather slow pace, and the subject matter. But the elderly couple are played to perfection by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Indeed flashbacks to earlier days when Anne was a beautiful and accomplished pianist come as quite a shock, her disabilities are so utterly convincing.

The opening sequence grabs you by the throat: a brigade of firemen and police are breaking down the doors of an elegantly proportioned though rather run down apartment in Paris. Behind a taped-up bedroom door they find the decaying corpse of Anne laid out on a bed surrounded by flower heads.

The onset of her illness is poignantly captured: Anne suddenly goes blank at the breakfast table and fails to respond to Georges. He initially thinks she’s playing a prank on him, and his amateurish attempts to revive her are an early indication of his unreadiness to take on the role that’s thrust upon him. When she comes out of her catatonic state she finds herself unable to pour a cup of tea. The dawning realisation seen in her face is haunting. What must it be like to be a brilliant musician and suddenly, without warning lose control of your hands?

She undergoes surgery to unblock her carotid artery, but something goes wrong, and she’s left paralyzed down her right side. After her first hospitalisation she makes Georges  promise to keep her out of any institution thereafter. That promise exacts a fearful toll on him as she suffers subsequent strokes and increasingly loses mental and physical control, and we watch him being tested beyond his capacity with growing dread. Verbal expression of his feelings is kept to a minimum, increasing the sense of his isolation.

Anne herself initially makes a spirited attempt to live with her disabilities, and the scenes of her determinedly finding ways to cope with simple tasks using just one useful hand, or learning to drive her motorised wheelchair, spell out her dogged determination to get on with her life. Indeed it’s Anne herself who initially guides Georges as to how best to assist her. But we can’t forget the enormity of what’s she’s lost, and we can’t but sympathise with her when she says she doesn’t want to go on living.

Georges’ rather bumbling attempts to pick up the tasks of domestic life and Anne’s care reveal with great sensitivity both his fundamental devotion and his present unease. But his love becomes increasingly streaked with irritation as she grows more fractious and incoherent, and he becomes frailer himself, until one day he loses his temper with her.  Hard to know who is more shocked.

Their daughter, Eva, (just visiting) exerts pressure on him to put her mother into care, but Georges categorically refuses to break the promise he made to his wife. Eventually though, he concedes that the burden is too great for him alone and he employs first one nurse for three days a week, and later a second nurse. But Georges then momentarily metamorphoses into a much more robust fiery character: he finds this latest recruit has been ill-treating her patient, and he calls down a curse on her that she be similarly treated in her dependency.

Anne’s pitiful crying for help, her incontinence, her inability to convey her wishes, the increasing indignities her elderly body is subjected to – none of the horrors are shirked by these fine actors, or the director, Michael Haneke. And it’s almost a relief when Georges sits down to calm his wife’s distressed crying by telling her a story taken from his youth. His soothing tone, his body language, the gentle stroking of her good hand … we are lulled into a sense that he has at last found a way to deal with the impatience and intolerable demands. The mournful cries do gradually diminish and stop, Anne lies perfectly still, only her blinking eyes reminding us she’s listening: it’s both touching and comforting. So the suddenness of his action (picking up a pillow and smothering her) takes one by storm.

After the act, Georges himself calmly sets about completing his self-appointed responsibilities. He buys flowers which he washes (not sure why) before snipping off the heads. He selects clothes for Anne. He sits down to compose a very long letter, working well into the night. He shakily climbs a ladder to tape the bedroom door shut and then spends ages tottering round after a pigeon that has flown in through the hall window. He tries to catch it in a blanket, and I confess I thought he was bent on violence towards it, but no, the real Georges is still there, doddery and clumsy, but still capable of compassion and logical thinking. He caresses the bird tenderly in the blanket as if its flickering life is a comfort to him, before he releases it. The symbology, though obvious, is pitch perfect.

Anne’s ghost pervades the apartment. Georges sees her vividly everywhere, rejuvenated now, active, independent, in charge. When she prepares to leave the house, calling to him to bring a coat, he follows her out of the apartment one last time and is not seen again.

The final sequence takes us back to the beginning, as daughter Eva wanders through the now-empty and silent apartment, remembering, thinking.

Though, as a film, Amour has garnered immense praise, inevitably some have criticised the showing of a controversial act of mercy?/killing. I’d recommend that you watch the whole film before making up your own mind about the right/wrongness of portraying Georges’ solution so graphically – or indeed about his actions. It’d be money well spent. And whatever you conclude, I’m sure you’d agree it’s a powerful way of stimulating thought and discussion on a vexed question.



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