As I sit here typing this I am entirely grateful for my unthinking ability to move my hands, I am grateful for my ability to itch that an annoying itch on my shoulder, and I am grateful overall for a perfectly working body that does as it’s told.
The reason for this gratitude is the result of Neil Platt’s story movingly and sensitively depicted in Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon’s (Donkeys, 2010) documentary. It’s the kind of documentary that from its premise- following the final months of 34-year-old Platt’s life as he suffers the devastating effects of Motor Neurone Disease, and tries to make sense of his life for his one-year-old son Oscar-sounds like it could be overwhelmingly depressing and morbid. But like another great documentary following the final year of a man’s life, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off (2004), manages to be both uplifting and tragic, and is leavened with moments of (sometimes dark) humour embodied by Platt himself.
This is seen when Platt humorously relates the difficulty of everyday tasks like trying to cancel his mobile phone contract; the foolhardy and overenthusiastic salesman tries to give him three months extra free, after not believing that he’s really terminally ill (As Platt wryly comments: “If you can give me that, you’re a better bloke than all my doctors put together”). In another scene Platt bemusedly ponders why cardboard coffins are more expensive than wooden coffins while making his own funeral arrangements.That Platt still has a resilient sense of humour and is able to value the short time he has left with his loving wife and son, is what makes him so likable and engaging as he says himself, “It’s amazing how adaptable we are when we have to be”. His selflessness too in wanting to be taken off life support as soon as he is unable to swallow or speak, so as not to be just a lifeless presence and a burden is also very moving.
The film also depicts well the daily pain of his condition; Platt describing how awful it is not to be able to scratch frequent itches that you still fully feel. He also wishes he had more time to do things like have ‘adventure holidays’ and implores the audience to not let their time slip by. The presence and sound of his ventilator is also a constant reminder of his terminal condition, and it is particularly poignant when we see his wife trying to get Oscar to kiss him without the ventilator and the alarm sounding as it becomes too late to do so.
We also see his growing frustration as he tries to dictate his blog through an audio to text program which frequently misinterprets his words (his funny and courageously honest blog also providing the thematic thread of the film as Neil tries to raise awareness of his condition), and how Neil views his projected clock on his ceiling as an ominous countdown to his death (shown in an effective static point of view shot). We also see how difficult it becomes for him to breath and talk which makes for very painful viewing, especially when we have heard him speaking so eloquently and wittily before. It can also hard to see Oscar playing so happily and innocently around Platt knowing that he will have to face the tragic loss of his father and potential risk of getting MND himself, and also knowing that Platt will never see him grow older. While his brave wife Louise describes how hard it is to sleep at night knowing that at any moment he could die, the uncertainty of that moment being one of the most excruciating aspects.
The film gives us a better sense of Platt through home video footage and family photos of him as a child and young adult, and through an actor’s (presumably) narration and accompanying drawings. We see him as a healthy and fit young man with a job as an architect, having lots of fun and messing about on holidays with his family and on downtime with his friends, and we see the personal objects that Platt keeps in his memory box for Oscar. We also learn that his dad died of MND when he was 22 and that he inspires his strength and sense of fun to the end, and we see how quick the deteriorating effects of MND are as Platt loses more mobility as the footage gets more recent.
Though I would’ve perhaps liked the film to be a bit longer and have learned a bit more about Platt’s life, it is a small criticism for what is a potent reminder of the need for more research into a cure for this awful condition. Let’s hope that Platt’s generous insight into his life prompts this awareness as he intended it to, so that more families can grow old together. And at the very least people can learn to appreciate their own health and mobility.