‘Much Ado About Dying’: A gay actor lives out ‘King Lear’ at the end of his life

"Much Ado About Dying," directed by Simon Chambers, opens March 15 at Film Forum.
“Much Ado About Dying,” directed by Simon Chambers, opens March 15 at Film Forum.
Soilsiú Films

Very few people will die from a gunshot, while everyone lucky enough to live into old age experiences the slow, painful deterioration of their body. Movies are full of images of the former but have almost never shown us the latter. When narrative films have tackled the toll of dementia, they tend to exude a misanthropic pessimism (Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Gaspar Noe’s “Vortex”) or use it as a gotcha plot device (Florian Zeller’s “The Father”). Last year, several documentaries set in hospitals launched a more intimate examination of the physical and mental costs of aging. “Much Ado About Dying” takes a different tack to much the same subject: Gay director Simon Chambers constructed it from footage shot during the five-year period when he was his uncle David’s caretaker.

“Much Ado About Dying” is structured around David, a former actor, delivering a monologue from “King Lear.” Bookending the film, it’s the only part which appears to have been staged. At first, David speaks in bed, his voice croaking. Chambers cuts to himself behind a camera, filming David quoting Shakespeare. “Much Ado About Dying” likens the situation it depicts to Lear’s humbling in old age. David can still be charming (especially when he moves into a nursing home for retired actors). Presumably, he lived a middle-class life when he was younger, but he now humiliates himself because he’s unable to control his own behavior in his cluttered house. He pisses in jars and defecates into ice cream containers. Home care nurses stop seeing him after he greets them in the nude or simply can’t make it to the door in time to let them in. His decline harms other people, as he accidentally burns down his house and leaves his neighbors homeless.

Chambers is careful about how much he reveals about himself. After directing two documentaries, he moved to New Delhi, India, but he decided to return to England after receiving a despairing call from David, saying, “I think I’m dying.” He sees parallels between himself and David, especially in the fact that both are gay. David never had a relationship and waited to come out till he was 62. Simon says he came out at 23 and went back into the closet at 36. Simon’s life hasn’t been as lonely as David’s, but he still struggles with that emotion. Presumably, hiding his sexuality again coincided with his move to India, but he doesn’t spell out what he means. For a personal documentarian, Chambers is much more interested in putting the camera on David than himself.

Several scenes in “Much Ado About Dying” make one question whether David’s state of mind could have allowed him to consent to being filmed. (Due to his delusions, he begins to believe he’s a victim of torture at his nursing home.) At first, his theatricality makes itself known. Chambers says, “Even in his day-to-day life, it never felt like he was not performing.” But compared to the abusive treatment David receives from his supposed friend Rodrigo, the film feels entirely benevolent. The last few years of David’s life get grimmer, as he loses the ability to act in his own best interests. A heterosexual artist, Rodrigo exploited David’s desire for him, stringing him along as if it would be reciprocated eventually. (Seeing an “I love you, Daddy” cup, Chambers wonders if Rodrigo bought it for him.) Elderly people are common targets for financial scams, and Rodrigo pulled them on David, constantly complaining that he needed cash for alleged emergencies. He drained 25,000 pounds from David. Tellingly, Rodrigo did not consent to having his face shown in “Much Ado About Dying.”

Chambers goes beyond commonplace depictions of lonely gay men. He films the aging male body with attention to its creases and liver spots, highlighting David’s sunken eyes. Yet he also portrays David with real tenderness. The tensions that must have occurred when Chambers took a larger role as David’s caretaker are downplayed. “Much Ado About Dying” becomes a film about collective responsibility. It even finds light at the end of David’s tunnel by editing his monologue over tranquil images of rain and snow, promising a renewal in nature and generations to come.

“Much Ado About Dying” | Directed by Simon Chambers | First Run Features | Opens March 15th at Film Forum