Out today in cinemas Elsa and Fred, Michael Radford’s 2014 drama starring acclaimed actors Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, tells a tale of love in the twilight years, positing that ‘It’s never too late’.

Plummer plays Fred who, after losing his wife, moves in to a small, more manageable apartment. There, he meets MacLaine’s Elsa, a woman who has had a romantic dream for some sixty years, and the two develop a relationship.

This is a very rare story for Hollywood. That of two people in the late years of their lives, finding new love. Why, though, is this sub-genre so ignored on the big screen? Are there even enough movies for it to be categorised?


The average big-screen romantic comedies tend to deal with thirty-somethings, look for Mr or Mrs Right, feeling like time is running out for them to find love and happiness. How insulting this must feel to the mature audience, Hollywood telling them that their chances of a romantic relationship passed by decades ago.

Whilst these types of movies are aimed at the age-group that studios feel are their core audience, it is more than a little short-sighted, with older characters usually in long-established relationships, providing wisdom and guidance to the younger stars.

There is, of course, a sub-section of movies that deal with ‘middle-aged’ couples, and their trials and tribulations. 2009’s comedy It’s Complicated starred Meryl Streep as a divorcee caught between a promising new relationship, and her lingering feelings for her ex-husband, brought on by an ill-advised drunken night together. Other movies like Something’s Gotta Give, Mamma Mia! and Love is All You Need take a comedic look at similar situations.

It's Complicated

One of the best recent films that dealt with romance in middle-age was 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. Starring Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, it followed a couple’s marriage break-down, their attempts at finding love with other people, and finally the rekindling of their relationship. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown also had a middle-aged romantic relationship at its core, but with a much more dramatic, crime ridden story surrounding its characters.

There are several movies that explore relationships developing between people of advancing years and the much younger objects of their affection. This is a situation that is obviously seen by writers and filmmakers as a much more interesting story, and is usually played for comedic effect.

1997’s As Good as It Gets saw Academy Awards for lead actor and actress Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, as well as several other nominations. Nicholson was 60 at the time, whilst Helen Hunt was a much younger 34. Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey saw a similar age gap between its stars. Taking the concept to bigger extremes, and flipping the genders around, was Harold and Maude, in 1971. The romantic leads had an age gap of over fifty years!

as good as it gets

1995’s The Bridges of Madison County took a more dramatic look at a mature couple with an age gap, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. The age gap, though, wasn’t the dramatic thrust of the story, and its fair to say the Clint Eastwood was playing younger than his real age in the movie.

More recently, Meryl Streep appeared with Tommy Lee Jones in 2012’s Hope Springs. They played a couple who, after thirty years of marriage, had hit a rut, and went through intensive couples counselling. It’s an interesting movie that looks at some heavy themes in a fairly light way, mixing comedy and dramatic moments for an effective story. The leads, though, were both playing around 15 years below their real age, which potentially highlights one of the problems.

If Tommy Lee Jones is playing a 50-something at the age of 66, he won’t be due to play a character of retirement age until 80. With actors keen to play parts below their age, it’s maybe tricky to get good ones keen to star as a septuagenarian.

Hope Springs 3

There are, though, some very effective movies dealing with characters towards the end of their life spans.  Quite often, these involve looking at the difficulties of love at this age, when deteriorating health begins to have a huge impact.

Sarah Polley’s heart-wrenching Away From Her, from 2006, saw Gordon Pinsent’s Grant taking his wife, Julie Christie’s Fiona, to a care home at her own request. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she struggles to recognise Grant. He visits her on a daily basis at the home, but finds his heart being broken anew when she begins to fall in love with another resident. His love for her is so strong that, despite the agony of watching his wife slipping away from him, he continues to persevere, spending as much time with her as he can despite the circumstances.

Michael Haneke’s Amour looks at a similar situation, but deals instead with the stress and emotion of a husband looking after his stricken wife in their own home.

These movies are both very good, dramatic stories, but are not exactly date movies, and as a result weren’t really commercial ventures. This goes some way to explaining why Hollywood executives are shy of funding films that focus on those of advancing years. There is clearly a feeling that there is not enough of an audience to make these projects economically viable. This, though, is a little bit short-sighted. There HAVE been films about characters in their twilight years, which have drawn in big box office numbers.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

2011’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel saw a group of British retirees travelling to a dilapidated hotel in India. It focussed on their relationships, old and new, mixing light comedy with scenes of genuine dramatic weight. With a production budget of just $10 million, it went on to gross over $135 million around the world. It was so successful, in fact, that its sequel, The Second Best Marigold Hotel, was released this year. Proof, then, that movies based around the romantic relationships of pensioners CAN be financially successful.

Hopefully, with the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the willingness of acclaimed actors and actresses like Meryl Streep to star in movies focussing on characters of advancing years, we might begin to see more movies released in this under-served sub-genre. Hollywood studios need to sit up and take notice, as there are very few untapped audience demographics left in cinema. If they do, then maybe, very soon, we’ll be starting to see 50 shades of a very different kind of grey on our cinema screens.

Elsa and Fred is out in cinemas today, and available to buy on Download and DVD from the 4th of May. You can win a copy below.

elsa and fred