From 1973 Bond girl Solitaire to Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, iconic actor Jane Seymour has become the latest star to shine a light on the debilitating disease and No.1 killer of women in Australia: Dementia.
Shot in Sydney and regional NSW during the first COVID-19 wave last year, Ruby’s Choice premiered in late August at the CinefestOZ festival in Western Australia.
A cinema release is slated for further down the track, but if the three-minute trailer is anything to go by, it will touch the heartstrings of every family that has gone through the pain and anguish of a relative diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s a must-see, emotional journey, and one that ultimately seeks to humanise the story of a grandmother called Ruby, played by Seymour, who is dealing with dementia.
It’s also about her family and how they rediscover the value of her presence in their lives.
Australian organisation Dementia Foundation for Spark of Life – the official charity partner for the film – worked closely with the filmmakers to make sure the story was true to real-life experiences.
The charity’s president, Hilary Lee, says Seymour’s “sensitive and authentic portrayal of Ruby enables us to see that people with dementia are just like us, with the same emotions and feelings”.
“It just shows that anyone with dementia or Alzheimer’s has a purpose and can have a meaningful life,” she says.
Pointedly, Ms Lee said the foundation worked tirelessly to transform “the experience of dementia from being disempowered and forgotten to being emotionally connected and loved”.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Seymour, who drew on her family’s experiences to play the role and is a global ambassador for the charity, told Seven it was “a sad and scary place to put yourself as an actress”.
“I have a lot of family members who’ve had dementia and Alzheimer’s, so I’ve been around that world. When you play someone who has it, and you realise the fear they have when they don’t know what’s happening or what’s going on, it’s terrifying.
“But at the same time, in Ruby’s case, she mends the hearts of everyone in her family.”
She doesn’t necessarily know she’s doing it, but all her family’s elephants in the room get solved.
“Its a very sad and scary place to put yourself … to go there,” Ms Seymour continued.
“She loses her ability to know where the bathroom is – that is a really big one. She gets lost.
“In the middle of the night she starts crying and thinking that her husband, who’s long since dead, is in the bed next to her, and actually it’s her granddaughter Tash (Coco Jack Gillies).”
Directed by Michael Budd (Life of the Party), the film begins with an elderly Ruby living alone with undiagnosed dementia.
After accidentally burning down her house, she’s forced to move into her daughter’s crowded home, where Sharon (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her family’s dynamics shift as they navigate their way through daily life.
In the middle of it all, Ruby unwittingly begins to bring the family together and, in the end, she has a surprising ally when it comes time to consider that dreaded nursing home decision.
“Film is a fundamental way of reaching the community to start such a conversation about an issue of exceptional importance,” director Budd says.
“Dementia is a really tricky topic to discuss in film. As the director of Ruby’s Choice, I drew on my personal experiences interacting with people with dementia, including my grandmother. My aim was to carefully portray dementia in a highly accurate and respectful way.
“We worked incredibly hard to pull Ruby’s Choice together throughout the pandemic because it is a story so close to our hearts and an important one to get out into the public arena.”
Two major films have dealt with dementia and Alzheimer’s in recent years, and coincidentally or not, the lead actors for both films won Academy Awards for their insightful, delicate and accurate portrayals of the crippling disease.
Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor at the 2021 Oscars for his role in The Father and Julianne Moore won Best Actress for her lead part in 2014 film Still Alice (SBS on Demand).
Olivia Colman played the daughter of Hopkins’ character in The Father, which was acclaimed by critics for its portrayal of dementia and recognised with six Oscar nominations (winning best adapted screenplay) and four Golden Globe nominations, among many others.
And Moore’s performance brought the issue of early-onset dementia into sharper focus.
The film was based on the real-life story of a linguistics professor at Columbia University – and on the ways her family dealt with her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at age 50 – and Moore won a Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA for Best Actress, and, after five nominations, the 2014 Oscar for Best Actress.
Sadly, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare‘s 2019 Deaths in Australia report, dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) was the leading cause of death for women, accounting for 9522 (12 per cent) of deaths.
It surpassed heart disease “which has been the leading cause of death for both men and women since the early 20th century”.
It was the second-leading cause of death among men.
As Seymour observed: “If the other person can be compassionate and hear … [sufferers] just need to be heard, especially with dementia.
“You just have to be compassionate. You can’t fix them.”