Like the very fine film Contagion, which I reviewed earlier this year, The Descendants focuses on a man who must deal with the death of his wife. And, as in Contagion, this man discovers, after the fact, that his wife had been having an affair. The concept gives one pause: if you left the office this afternoon and didn’t make it back home, what secrets would your loved ones discover while trying to put back together the pieces of their lives? Would their memory of you be forever shadowed by some discovery that you were no longer alive to explain?
Although I would never condone an extramarital relationship, I felt sad for both of these cheating characters (especially when I read the book version of The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings). We all wear different labels for different occasions. Yes, Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) must wear the label “Adulterer,” but she also wears the label “Mother.” And “Friend.” And “Adventurer.” And “Artist.” And “Wife.” And, apparently, “Neglected Wife.” Is it fair that “Adulterer” is the only one by which she will be remembered?
Matt King (George Clooney) seems to recognize this. He admits in voiceover narration that “before the accident we hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way, we hadn’t spoken in months.” Similarly, he acknowledges that he hasn’t spent time alone with his daughters Scottie (Amanda Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) in at least seven years. He’s a busy attorney as well as the executor of a family trust that belongs to the descendants of King Kamehameha of Hawaii. In the latter role he has the responsibility of deciding what to do with a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai before the trust is dissolved in seven years. While his wife lies in a coma, he is trying to decide which of several development offers to accept. This family trust provides a backdrop and metaphor for the family drama unfolding in the foreground.
When Matt discovers — from teenaged Alexandra, no less — that Elizabeth had been cheating on him, he decides to track down her paramour. Not to punch him, mind you, although that thought brings a smile to Matt’s face. Somehow he is able to feel enough love and compassion, and perhaps even guilt, to give his wife and her lover the opportunity to say goodbye. The journey to find the lover becomes, in a sense, a journey for Matt to find himself and, in the process, to change his own label to “Father.”
As he surveys the land that is owned jointly by his cousins, Matt muses, “We didn’t do anything to own this land — it was just entrusted to us.” In a way, this is true of families as well. We fall in love, we get married, and children show up. We don’t do anything to prove that we are ready for them. We don’t have to get a training manual to raise them (yet). But they are entrusted to us nevertheless. Matt goes on to note about the land trust, “We were expected to protect this land. I have seven years left to figure out how to keep it.” His family is like that, too. He is already a father genetically; he has about seven years left to become a father in fact.
Set in Hawaii, The Descendants provides a rustic glimpse of the close-knit, laid-back life of the native Hawaiians who aren’t really all that “native” — many of them are blonde and blue-eyed. One can almost smell the frangipani in the background and feel the warm sidewalks under their bare feet. The art on the walls of the various homes is also uniquely Hawaiian, creating a visual luau of colors and designs. It is a lovely film in every respect.
As is usually the case, however, the novel on which the film is based has more depth than the screenplay. Film adaptations always have to take shortcuts to fit the story inside the movie’s limited time structure, and character development often suffers in the process. While The Descendants is a good film, I missed the nuances that come out in the book, where we see more of Elizabeth, her background, her motivation, and the joy and tragedy of her life than we do in the film.
Several years ago, some new acquaintances told me their “how we met” story. John had been married to Mary’s sister Kathleen, and when Kathleen contracted cancer, Mary came to help nurse her and take care of their children. On the way home from Kathleen’s funeral, one of the children volunteered from the backseat, “Aunt Mary, can you be our new mommy?” And that is what happened. John and Mary thought this was a wonderfully happy and romantic story. From their perspective it is. But my heart went out to Kathleen. On the way home from the funeral? They couldn’t mourn her and let her be the mommy for just a little while longer?
I thought of that story as I watched Matt become a father to his daughters. After the doctor tells Matt that there isn't any hope for Elizabeth's recovery, Matt says to ten-year-old Scottie, "We're letting Mom go tomorrow." He says it matter-of-factly, almost as he might say, "We're letting the maid go" or, "We're letting the gardener go." The Neglected Wife became the Adulterer, and "Mother" is erased from her resume. I was happy for Matt and his daughters to have rekindled their bond. But my heart ached for Elizabeth. It made me want to go home and throw away all my secrets.