Monday 25 May 2020

Movie Review: On Golden Pond (1981)

A family drama about aging, On Golden Pond examines the twilight of life through the twin lenses of enduring love and difficult forgiveness.

In New England, elderly couple Norman and Ethel Thayer (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn) reopen their summer cottage on the shores of an idyllic lake known as Golden Pond. A retired professor approaching 80 years old, Norman suffers from heart palpitations and declining mental sharpness. He maintains an abrasive personality compounded by an obsession with death. Ethel is 10 years younger and in better health. They remain deeply in love and she helps smooth over his sharp edges.

Their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) arrives for Norman's birthday along with her new boyfriend Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his 13 year old son Billy (Doug McKeon). Chelsea and Norman have a strained relationship and cannot mend it before she leaves for Europe with Bill, leaving Billy in the care of Norman and Ethel for a month. The young teenager and old man bond over fishing, but dangers lurk in the lake and Chelsea's return will prompt more difficult conversations.

Remarkably, On Golden Pond was the first on-screen collaboration between legends Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. And with Jane Fonda adding a layer of realism to the strained dynamic between father and daughter, the film's casting is near-mythical. And the stars do not disappoint. An otherwise simple story is elevated by Hepburn and Henry Fonda (in his final appearance) defining the dusk of life as a time of uncertainty, reflection, pride, impatience and plenty of love. Both deservedly won Academy Awards for their performances.

Ernest Thompson adapted his own play into a witty script and director Mark Rydell respects the theatrical origins but also displays nimbleness to keep the cameras moving. Cinematographer Billy Williams makes the most of the serene filming location at Squam Lake, New Hampshire.

Thompson invests in the aching emotional dependencies between long-term partners, and the bond of marriage between Norman and Ethel resides at the core of the story. Both know he is in declining health but he remains her lifelong rock and she refuses to partake in his incessant death talk, coaxing him to engage and at least minimize the antagonizing behaviour. 

The second key relationship develops between Norman and young Billy, and indeed they take centre stage for the entire middle act. Norman finds a fishing companion and willing learner; Billy discovers adventure on the lake, including the thrills of operating a speed boat and catching elusive trout. They make an unlikely partnership and uncover the reciprocal joys of mentorship.

Ironically the weakest subplot is between Chelsea and her father. Their dysfunctionality is superficially introduced and summarily resolved, Jane Fonda overacting and unconvincing at both ends of Chelsea's arc.

But whenever the humans stumble On Golden Pond can turn to the graceful loons, majestically swimming as couples across the lake, all the hard work of togetherness hidden below the surface.


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