The first half of the 1982 television film, Loving Walter, is one of the most realistic portrayals of the mentally challenged that I've ever seen. Because of this, it's one of the most depressing films I've seen in a very long time. The pacing and structure of the film truly allow audiences to access Walter's world, making for a very powerful film that is almost too overwhelming for its own good.
Walter, played masterfully by Sir Ian McKellen, is a mentally challenged man living with his parents in Britain. His condition obviously weighs heavily on his parents, but this doesn't seem to have that much of a negative impact on him. He's a strong man with a job and a possible future who finds solitude with his pigeons. Walter becomes a very likable character, one whom I was pulling for when his mother shouts at him or when his coworkers mock him. Although he might be slow mentally, he has compassion and inner spirit. I found myself thinking more than once that many of us could learn from Walter's example.
But when his parents die things begin to turn bad for Walter and the film begins to take that overly depressing turn. When he is placed in the forbidding institution, it's very difficult to watch because of the realism portrayed onscreen. In one very graphic scene, Walter is forced to help a comatose patient by cleaning feces off of his backside after the man had a nasty bowel movement during the night. Walter's spirit never falters and he's always there to help, which is uplifting in its own way, but his attitude only makes his predicament that much harder to watch.
What this film really needs is a break in the tension. I was so overwhelmed at the sad state of this institution and at how poorly Walter and the others are treated, that I found myself wanting to fast forward the film. I needed relief. Not comedy, exactly, but something not so powerful. Something light.
Luckily, relief does come in the second half of the film. Unfortunately, it comes in the wrong form. The second half introduces, and focuses on, June (Sarah Miles), a suicidal patient who Walter eventually falls in love with. I was relieved to see a break in the detailed look at Walter's life, but not at the expense of losing him. Too much time is spent on June, and we no longer get to see Walter's day-to-day experiences.
The film doesn't necessarily take a wrong turn here as far as the story goes (I liked the idea of Walter finding someone he likes), it simply forgets the focus of the film, which is Walter. Sure, he's still the main character and the focal point of the situations, but the powerful nature of the first half is missing. It's almost as if I'm wanting too things. The depressing reality of the first half was overbearing, but when it was gone, I missed it.
This film has its flaws, but the acting by Sir Ian McKellen is not one of them. This man is a master. In this film, he is Walter. I never doubted that for one moment. The look in his eyes is filled with depth and compassion, a must for a film that tackles such an important topic. Without McKellen's performance, Loving Walter would not have had the realism it does, and thus couldn't have the same impact.
As it is, Loving Walter is a close look at the mentally challenged and their life in institutions. Despite the wrong turn in the second half, the film does have a lasting impact.
THE BONUS FEATURES
The best bonus feature is the text presentation of "Futile Treatment of the Mentally Ill". Although I have never enjoyed reading from my television screen, I was intrigued with this subject. This very interesting look at this very serious issue delves into how philosophers and scientists have viewed mental illness from ancient Egypt to modern times. It's a very enlightening read.
Also on the disc are biographies and select filmographies of the key players.