Jessica Lange as an actress with dementia

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In “The Great Lillian Hall,” Jessica Lange plays a veteran theater actress – a legend of the Broadway stage – who is always in the spotlight, reciting parts from her favorite roles and continuing the tradition of legendary actresses known for her playing characters like Blanche DuBois because they actually have a lot of Blanche in them. (They believe in their own illusions.) But just because Lillian Hall is a flamboyant grand dame doesn’t mean she won’t show you who she is. Lange, a 75-year-old beauty, has a face that has only become more expressive with age. In “The Great Lillian Hall,” that face is a map of emotions that we read. Even when Lillian deceives (even when she deceives herself), the majesty of her feelings shines through.

There’s a touching scene in which Lillian sits on a porch with her grown daughter Margaret (Lily Rabe), whom she never had time for while raising her; she was always acting, doing eight performances a week. But that evening she came home in time to sing young Margaret to sleep, and now, on the veranda, she softly sings that same song – “Hush little darling, don’t cry…” Her voice is now old and cracking, and what we see and hear in Jessica Lange, expressed in emotions as delicate as parchment, are three levels of consciousness: an ache of nostalgia; the regret Lillian now feels for the absent mother she was; and something new – a silent chasm of sadness at the fact that she is now leaving, to a place she will never return. Because what no one else knows is that she has been diagnosed with dementia.

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There have now been quite a number of film dramas about dementia, and I have mentioned that I found them moving and yet dramatically frustrating at times. As the main character withdraws, there is a way he or she can also withdraw from the audience. “The Great Lillian Hall” solves that problem in a simple way. The film is set during the onset of Lillian’s symptoms, so that even though she is rehearsing for a major new Broadway production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” where she is dealing with memory problems, the film is not gothic -medical film. soap opera in which she suddenly starts to forget who she is. Rather, it’s about how Lillian, saddled with this devastating diagnosis, makes peace with where she’s going by taking stock of who she’s been.

Her symptoms cause some drama during the rehearsal process. She jumbles her lines, messes up the blocking, forgets what act she’s in, and literally falls on her face at one point. Her most dramatic symptom, however, remains offstage: She keeps hallucinating that she is seeing her beloved late husband Carson (Michael Rose), a theater director who for some reason resembles an elegant European drug trafficker. David (Jesse Williams), the director of “The Cherry Orchard,” is a downtown star moving to Broadway, and he hasn’t lost his faith in Lillian. But his tough producer (Cindy Hogan) does. She keeps talking about bringing in the understudy to replace her.

The film, written by Elisabeth Seldes Annacone and directed by Michael Cristofer, is a device that works (for the most part). It’s pieced together from devices, as if Lillian’s neighbor, with whom she flirts on their stately adjoining Central Park South balconies, is a cornball Lothario played with jaded affection by Pierce Brosnan, or Lillian’s daughter who says a line like, “You have never really wanted to be my mother. You just wanted to play the part!”, or the black-and-white faux-documentary interview segments that play like Bob Fosse Gone Cable Lite. The whole suspense over whether Lillian will make it through the rehearsal process and succeed on opening night – she’s the play’s cashier – drags you along, even as you realize it’s built around a big hint of unreality. Is anyone struggling with how Lillian can actually perform this show all week, for months?

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Yet Lange’s performance is so good that she gives this therapy version of The Show Must Go On a worldly center that you can roll with and almost believe in. Lillian relies on her experienced assistant Edith (Kathy Bates) for almost everything. and these two actors have a brutally intimate and spirited interplay that you can listen to for hours. There are a few scenes that tap into the agony of dementia (and Lange is powerful in those moments), but mostly “The Great Lillian Hall” is a feel-good movie about using acting to change the lemons life throws at you gives hands. a great illusion of lemonade.

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