‘The course of true love never did run smooth’ – Shakespeare’s words, spoken by Lysander at the start of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, are frequently quoted, particularly in relation to teenagers and young people. But the same can equally well be said of adults later in life. ’23 Walks’ a film currently available on Netflix starring Dave Johns as Dave and Alison Steadman as Fern, charts their relationship from its inauspicious beginnings through their shared commitment to walking their dogs on the 23 Walks of the title.
Whilst the dogs, despite their vast disparity in size, hit it off at the very beginning, and remain close friends throughout the movie, their owners find that the challenge of building a friendship, let alone a relationship, a much more complex proposition.
I won’t give the game away by describing in detail some of the challenges they face, and what results from them, but my experience as a therapist certainly leaves me in no doubt at all that there are things that couples forming new relationships later in life need to be open with each other about. As Fern says to Dave later on in the film ‘We’ve both lived a lot of life haven’t we!’
So what are some of the key issues that I noticed that are highlighted in the film that help to give relationships a better chance of success.
- Friendship – Whilst a friendship may deepen into a relationship the film is strong in its message that for a relationship to succeed it is crucial to nurture friendship at every opportunity. Where this becomes doubly important, for instance is where one member of the couple wants to advance rapidly physically, the other, for whatever reason wants to hold back. As Fern says to Dave at one point, ‘I was bitten before and I need to protect myself’.
- Risk – Defensive positioning, however understandable that may be, given a person’s own history, is usually the result of emotional hurt. Both Dave and Fern have experienced considerable hurt in their lives prior to their meeting and both are held back by this. Crucial to making a change is first to acknowledge to themselves, and then to be able to express their past hurt to the other. Equally important, as portrayed, is for both to have the capacity to respect what they reveal to each other.
- Honesty – Quite a lot is made in the film of the need for honesty in relationships. Mysteries will always be present – after all one of the excitements in forming a new partnership is discovering new things about each other. But holding back secrets at whatever stage a relationship may be in can be immensely destructive – and certainly Fern and Dave experience the difficulties of finding that out for themselves.
- Compartmentalising – closely linked to the need for honesty is, as presented, the danger of compartmentalising. Dave, as a former mental health nurse, says at some stage that the only way he managed to do his job for as long as he did was to leave behind the experiences of the day when he went home in the evening. But the attempt to do that in a relationship is a futile one. However much we may want to say that the past is in the past and that we don’t want to bring it into the present, the fact is that it is always there, often lurking in the background but needing to be acknowledged if it is not going to turn round and bite us. Nowhere is this more true than in the physical side of a relationship and the intimacy of sex.
- Forgiveness – in the stuttering ups and downs of their relationship the significance of forgiveness, both of each other and of others they are in contact with, is a recurring theme – one which, it is implied, dogs do rather better than their human counterparts.
- Hope – the film is suffused with hope from start to finish. The music, the pictures of the natural world where Spring follows Winter, the restorative powers of canine friendships, the powerful portrayal of loyalty tested under pressure, are all shot through with hope in a beautiful, understated way.
And that could be the caption that summarises the whole film by the time the twenty third walk is reached. In many ways it doesn’t say anything new but what it does say, it says well. It’s a film that many starting a relationship later in life would benefit from seeing together and might then enable them to reflect on some of the challenges which many such relationships face.