Much Ado About Dying review – brave, loving record of an actor uncle’s last days

Much Ado About Dying review – brave, loving record of an actor uncle’s last days

Films about film-makers and their kith and kin sometimes get dismissed as self-serving, self-indulgent or even – everyone’s favourite smear word these days – narcissistic. Director Simon Chambers’s wrenching film about his relationship with his aged uncle David is none of those things; I can think of few documentaries that are more honest, self-scrutinising and revelatory about ageing, familial love and its limits, and the whole tragicomic process of dying. It’s the sort of thing you might call “raw” – in the sense that wounds are raw – but the craftsmanship is never raw, despite the obvious lack of budget.

Chambers, mostly a voice narrating the story, and occasionally a presence on screen, explains how he was effectively summoned back to London from Delhi where he was making a film about cars. (The clips we see look promising and hopefully someday he’ll finish it.) He had to come home because his David, a former actor and schoolteacher, was struggling to cope with life alone. Practically housebound with a serious hoarding habit, David was not quite mentally or physically disabled enough to qualify for state intervention, but not really capable of taking care of himself either.

Filming himself and David on his frequent visits, Chambers builds up a portrait of David that is both profoundly affectionate and spiked with exasperation with the stubborn, confused, eloquent, grandiloquent and utterly charming man, who came out as gay in his 60s but never really had a lover. Chambers, who mentions that he’s also gay but somewhat luckier in love, admits to seeing something of himself in his uncle. That sympathy partly explains why he ends up taking on much of David’s care, just as his own mother, David’s sister, did years ago with her own ageing parents, a responsibility that feels more burdensome over time. Anyone who has had to look after an elderly relative will relate, and one can’t but admire Chambers for his honesty when he confesses towards the end to thinking that it might have been easier for everyone if David had died months earlier.

In a lesser film, constant allusions and quotations from King Lear might have seemed too on the nose, but here it’s a touchstone that emerges organically from the subjects, a play that clearly resonates deeply with David. Like Lear he’s sometimes a foolish old man, shedding cash and possessions carelessly, railing in the night as Guy Fawkes fireworks or neighbouring jack russells go off in response to his moans of pain. Chambers embraces the roles of Fool and Cordelia, contributing a wry sense of humour where you’d least expect it. And after seeing this, you may never be able to hear Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing without thinking of David’s lusty rendition of it while lying in a hospital bed, swaddled in incontinence pants.