Second Spring review – bracing optimism in the face of dementia diagnosis

Andy Kelleher has directed documentaries about the film-makers Carol Reed, Alan Clarke and Chris Petit, but now makes an accomplished fiction debut with a film hovering in the edgelands of London, the south-east and on the protracted plains of middle age, receding out towards uncertainty. It concerns a medical diagnosis that should be devastating, but – aided by a deftly off-key performance from lead actor Cathy Naden – actually functions as an awakening.

Naden plays fortysomething history lecturer Kathy, whose impulsive behaviour has begun to unsettle her friends. Stuck in a zombie marriage, she takes up with gangly, long-haired landscape gardener Nick (Jerry Killick) after throwing him a line next to his vintage BMW: “You can take me for a spin some time.” Alarmingly forthright has become her social modus operandi. She wakes up one morning on a disused railway platform after a night of alfresco boozing with a stranger. When her friends press her to get a brain scan, the news is not reassuring: she has fronto-temporal dementia, which can be lived with, but not cured. “It’s not Alzheimer’s,” husband Tim (Matthew Jure) feebly comforts her.

Keeping her diagnosis secret from him, Kathy’s fling with houseboat-dwelling Nick invigorates her – especially when he takes her out to the family pile on Hoo peninsula, Kent, which she says feels like home. Martin Herron’s screenplay carefully pinpoints how she manages her growing sense of incongruousness and oddity – or doesn’t: at one point, she obliviously exposes her breasts to Nick’s dad. But it generally opts for understatedness, and Naden and Killick are adept at unarticulated emotions that give Second Spring a lightly worn depth. Despite their steamy affair, Nick is often caught visibly restraining his inner cringe when Kathy tries to force her way into his life.

This troubled, incisive midlife interlude fits right in alongside the work of Andrew Haigh and Joanna Hogg – even if it doesn’t have quite the same modernist flow as the latter’s work. But Kelleher does have a crisp, painterly eye that especially thrives on the clean spaces of the Hoo peninsula, where Kathy becomes obsessed with the idea of an airport erasing local archaeological finds – surely an expression of her feelings about her shifting psyche. There’s an unlikely, bracing optimism here.

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