Marriage in the Movies: Regarding Henry

Marriage in the Movies: Regarding Henry August 3, 2015

Now that I’ve spent two weeks talking about the discouraging realities of homosexual “marriage,” I think it’s time for something uplifting about real marriage. What better way to provide that than by reviving a series my readers have probably forgotten about? As a quick (re)-introduction, this series looks at various Hollywood films and judges how well they handle the topic of marriage. I eased in with a Christian film (Fireproof), and have since tackled the Robin Williams classic Mrs. Doubtfire and the modern documentary-style film Boyhood. I was planning to add a lot more entries, but it just never happened. I’m hoping to start freshening it up a bit more regularly, because I think it’s a very timely topic to explore.
My featured film for today is a little 90s picture called Regarding Henry. And yes, if you’re looking at the promo shot on the right and thinking, “Is that… Han Solo?” you get a cookie. Indeed, many critics (myself included) rank this film among Harrison Ford’s strongest performances. But it’s not just Ford’s work that makes it memorable for me. It’s the movie’s surprisingly insightful treatment of marriage and the family. In fact, if the script threw in some references to God or church, it might even pass as a Christian movie (except with much better acting and writing). I like it so much that I was even inspired to put together a little music video for it, which you’ll get to watch if you read to the end of this article. (Unless you cheat and skip there, of course.) Spoiler alert, as usual.
Here’s the premise: Henry Turner (Ford) is a hotshot, cutthroat lawyer, a workaholic who maintains a cool relationship with his wife and daughter. One night, he steps out to buy cigarettes and happens to blunder into a hold-up. The trigger-happy registry robber fires two shots, and in a few seconds, Henry’s life is changed forever. His wife is shattered with the news that even if he recovers speaking and motor skills, most of his memories have been erased. He is forced to start fresh. But as the movie shows us, that may not be such a bad thing. (And for those who think that premise is just too implausible, Harrison Ford has said that while preparing for the role, he actually met and interviewed an actual lawyer who experienced this very process.)

Where the old Henry was a high society darling, the new Henry feels awkward around his old friends, preferring the company of the housemaid, the secretary or the waiter. Where the old Henry was impatient and indifferent to his daughter, Rachel, the new Henry depends on her to teach him how to tie a shoe and read a book all over again. And where the old Henry didn’t hesitate to play dirty in the courtroom at the expense of innocent people, the new Henry insists on revisiting old case files and asking uncomfortable questions.
We watch all these changes through the eyes of Henry’s wife, Sarah (Annette Bening). She hardly knows what to make of it all, but she’s starting to feel something she hasn’t felt for the longest time: genuine love for her husband. They had married after a whirlwind courtship, but his work consumed and hardened both of them. When he is rendered helpless and child-like, it revives her best and most affectionate instincts. In one sequence, Henry wanders out on the town after returning home from hospitalization and therapy. Sarah greets him with worried relief when he eventually finds his way back, and the reaction catches him off guard. “Wow. You really missed me!”
One thing the movie handles brilliantly is Henry’s piece-wise memory recall. He still doesn’t truly recognize his daughter, but he is suddenly seized with the memory of the gray carpet where he taught her to tie her shoe. He doesn’t remember a woman from work but knows she likes strawberries on her pancakes. He acts shyly around his wife, as he would around a strange woman. But when she lays her head down on his chest at night, he says simply, “I remember your hair.”
The movie also touches sensitively on his renewal of intimacy with Sarah. He worries that she will expect a certain standard, but she extends grace with a tender whisper, a wordless caress. She is with her husband and content to be so. He asks her to describe how they met, so she does, fondly painting a picture of the confidently smooth, charismatic man he used to be. Yet she holds the memory lightly, understanding what she has now, and understanding that it is good.
As they grow closer, Henry begins to take her hand as they walk together in public. She acts surprised and tells him he never liked showing affection in public before. “It bothered you.” “Why?” he asks, astonished. “I don’t know why.” “Me either!” Then he steps up on a bench and pulls her up with him. “Come here. I don’t mind so much anymore.” After they’re interrupted mid-kiss by a couple old high society friends, she can’t help dissolving into giggles.
Of course, the movie has to inject some tension into its third act. Just as Henry is getting to know his daughter for the first time, he discovers that she’s been accepted into a private boarding school. And an unfortunate bit of eavesdropping at a party reveals that his co-workers now view him with contempt and ridicule. To top it off, he suddenly discovers some old love letters to his wife from a pal at the office. She is sickened to come home and find him confronting her with the letters in his hand. All her pleadings and attempts to explain how different things were before the accident are in vain. He throws the letters in her face and retorts, “I don’t remember who I was then!” He walks out the door angry and hurt, renting a hotel room. I love the way Annette Bening rests her head on the door-frame after he leaves, so poignantly capturing Sarah’s heartbreak.
Much to Henry’s surprise, another old friend has followed him to the Ritz-Carlton: the woman with whom he had also had an extra-marital affair. “This was our hotel.” Ford plays this scene beautifully, as you watch the progression of confusion, shock and horror across Henry’s face. The other woman is a clever guilt-tripper, but Henry waves her away with his hand and leaves her behind.
This is Henry’s moral turning point, the point at which he must fully confront the man he used to be. First, he realizes he has the power to make it right to an old couple he harmed in his last case. He takes a bus to a nursing home and gives the wife a document that was deceptively kept back from the evidence. This woman has a small part, but she’s a very good actress. She greets him bitterly, as would be expected, which wounds him: “You remember me.” But she is overcome when he hands her the document, asking simply, “Why?” With equal simplicity, he responds, “I changed.” The next scene is very funny as Henry interrupts his boss’s office meeting to announce, “I can’t be a lawyer anymore.” The boss is surprised but shakes his hand and wishes him luck, only to be told that the old couple’s lawyer is on the phone. Henry grins mischievously. “Good luck to you too.”
Just as Henry does not absolve himself from the responsibility of making this old case right, he takes responsibility for his actions as a husband. He returns to his wife’s doorstep with a humble, repentant spirit. When she opens the door slowly and waits fearfully for him to speak first, he blurts out the old pickup line he used when they first met: “I know this great blowfish place.” She bursts into tears and says that she’s sorry, but he insists, “No. I’m sorry.” Whether or not he remembers his sins is not the point. The point is that they have had hurtful consequences for the people around him. For this, he must still ask forgiveness. As they embrace, he tells her that he doesn’t like his old clothes anymore. And he doesn’t like his job. And he doesn’t like eggs. She laughs through the tears. “Whatever you want. Whatever you want.”
The movie ends on a high note as Henry pulls his daughter out of her starchy boarding school mid-class, explaining to the teacher, “I missed her first 11 years, and I don’t want to miss any more.” This is really Sarah’s sacrifice, as she had been the one insisting on sending Rachel to the school. By letting it go, she is letting go of the pride she had in that status symbol, even though Rachel herself was miserable there. Now, they are finally free to be a family.
The song I picked to go with my little tribute to this film is called “Sanity’s Side,” by Little River Band. A beautiful thing I discovered as I went along is that the lyrics could apply both to Henry and to his wife. The recurring line, “You suddenly find you’re standing, looking over the edge of time. You can’t remember handling situations and nursery rhymes,” is especially profound. Henry must literally reconstruct his memories, but Sarah’s memories of love and family have also been deeply buried through years of growing apart from her husband. (In fact, you could say her character is the one that truly undergoes continuous change, since Henry is starting over from a blank slate.)
I hope this has been a nice walk down memory lane for some older readers who might recall when this movie first came out. And for younger readers with an old soul who are disappointed with what Hollywood usually has to offer on the topic of marriage, let me encourage you to check it out. If nothing else, see it for Ford and Bening’s honest, poignant acting. Watching talented performers connect with uplifting material is always encouraging. Would that it happened more often.
(For those with mobiles, click here to watch on Youtube. This will also correct the aspect ratio a bit.)

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