Film Review: 5 Flights Up (USA, 2015)

There’s a worrying future for those of us in Australia’s largest cities: unless you already own a house or two, the rest of us are not going to make it in the property ownership game.  So we stress and stew about the fact that although we’re going to have to work till we’re 70 years old to retire, we might spend a good chunk of that money paying for a million dollar home and probably living with debt our whole lives.  It feels like life is geared towards making ends meet, not making life worth living.  It makes us question what makes a house a home, and why these dreams are still so sought after.

So it was with great pleasure that Richard Loncraine’s film, 5 Flights Up, starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as husband and wife Alex and Ruth Carver, gives us access into a life where not only are the two main characters still so very much in love with each other after 40-odd years of marriage, they have built a life in and around their 2 storey flat, in the Brooklyn neighbourhood they are now so much a part of.  It is based on the novel Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment.

Ruth’s niece (Cynthia Nixon) advises her aunt that they should put their apartment up for sale, and see what kind of price they would get for it.  She uses real estate speak like “light is money” and “less is more”, and prepares the older couple for the real estate interest in the tiny apartment they have called home since they first got married.  But with the interest comes an experience that both Alex and Ruth are unprepared for, making them question what’s important to them.

The heart of the film centres on the themes of home, marriage, comfort and security, and they are cleverly explored in this film.  Alex (Morgan Freeman) is the old painter who uses the second bedroom of their flat as a studio.  He’s a bit taken aback by visitors to his home telling him that the room would look bigger once it’s cleared of “all the stuff”, but overall he is very pragmatic about the apartment showing.  He’s also, interestingly, extending this view to his age and outlook on life compared to the younger crowd of people traipsing through his home. “Maybe views are for younger people who still have things to look at”, he considers at one point in the film.  Alex is the person you kind of want to grow up to become – worldly, content with the life he’s made for himself and with an “I don’t give a damn” attitude to the chaos around him.

By comparison, Ruth (Diane Keaton) is the more sentimental one (as she often is in a lot of her recent films, although this time it works well).  She’s swept away in her niece Lily’s enthusiasm for the flat, but at the same time she’s also worried about their dog Dorothy, a sweet little side story that perfectly balances the craziness of the potential buyers against the realities of her home life.  She was and still is Alex’s muse, and in flashbacks to their earlier years, the young Alex (Korey Jackson) is smitten by young Ruth’s (played by Australian actress Claire van der Boom) confidence, and also very willing to do whatever it takes to make her happy.

It’s these little moments of familiar and comforting love between the young and old versions of the couple that give this film its warm creamy centre, and although some might find it a bit too sweet, others will revel in it.  To their credit, Korey Jackson and Claire van der Boom are able to play their characters like you are really watching the story unfold.  They’re in love in a time when inter-racial relationships were pretty much illegal and they’ve somehow, despite all odds, made it work.  Following this is credit to Freeman and Keaton who are great as the old married couple.  They’re lovely together, not in a schmaltzy kind of way, but in a way that people would want to be like when they’ve been with their partner for decades – completely devoted to each other.

Perhaps that’s why the scenes of the realtors and the buyers work so well, because they are (with a few exceptions), so horrible.  Note to anyone who spends their days or weekends looking at rental properties or auctions, don’t be the dicks that loudly proclaim, “I would gut that kitchen out so it looks less like a set from an 80s episode of Neighbours”.  The buyers in the film are entitled and rude – the perfect foil for Alex and Ruth’s calm and content unit.  Ruth’s niece Lily is also a bit annoying. She’s trying to be more important than she really is but Alex sees right through her.  Cynthia Nixon is great as Lily – in one scene, she receives an important phone call but can’t take it immediately, so she answers it with, “Please hold”, spends a couple of seconds explaining realtor-speak to her clients, then returns to the phone with, “Lily Portman, how can I help?”  Little moments like these highlight how important it is for Alex and Ruth to stay focused and to remember what they really want.

Overall, 5 Flights Up is a sweet film about the significance of home and what it means to people, and that a life is built not on investments or a real estate agent’s “sage” advice.  What you learn is that despite any amount of money someone might spend on property, it’s all worthless if there is no life to come home to.


5 Flights Up is in limited release nationally now.



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