Much Ado About Dying opens with a prosaic, if not ominous, panoramic shot of a rainy night on a modest London residential street while the noise of dogs barking clamors with the hum of raindrops. Simon Chambers—the writer, director, and filmmaker—gradually zooms in on an unassuming townhouse window.
Simon, the co-star of the documentary, takes the audience inside that townhome to meet his elderly uncle, David Gayle, who likes to recite lines from Shakespeare, especially his favorite play, King Lear. Simon had moved back to London from Delhi, where he sought excitement and had begun making a documentary about cars. From the outside, his life had looked exhilarating and fruitful, but then Simon started getting “this low-level anxiety that was there all the time and just wouldn’t go away.” It was around this time that he started getting phone calls from David.
On the surface, Much Ado About Dying is a story about dying. But it’s really a story about living. Simon narrates this story with a near-monotone voice: “David was once an actor and even in his day-to-day life it never felt as though he were not performing. Even when he was a teacher, he liked to be the center of attention…he never felt more alive than when he was in front of an audience.” David is the self-proclaimed star.
In one scene, David sits half-naked (a common occurrence throughout), breaking into a spontaneous dance that he calls “The Madness of King Lear.” He’s surrounded by the stuff from his life, engulfed in its history—nearly buried in it: tins of soup, CDs, typewriters, stereos, books, mugs, Christmas decorations. Having not left the house in years, the combination of hoarding and old age has left the place dilapidated and David very much alone. This doesn’t stop him from reading somewhere that mice don’t like peppermint, and so he squirts toothpaste on the electrical sockets to stop the mice from eating the wires and causing electrical fires. “I don’t think David had thrown anything away in the 40 years he had lived in this house,” says Simon.
A handful of characters come in and out of David’s life—Zibby and Beata, his neighbors, and a young abstract artist, Roderigo, with whom David is obsessed. Meanwhile, David refuses to wear incontinence pads given to him by a nurse from social services. He urinates into jam jars, which are left strategically around the house. And David “had other systems in place for other body functions, which involved…ice cream containers.” Social services complains that David walks around naked or just doesn’t open the door. So they stop coming.
Although David’s home is a circus, he’s in rough shape. His legs are raw, which he believes is eczema, but Simon has been telling him for months that it’s the electric heaters “cooking his legs like meat in a kabob shop.” Eventually, David returns to the hospital (another common occurrence) and his mood improves. “I think,” says Simon, “the reason he was enjoying himself so much is because suddenly he wasn’t lonely anymore.” Like the opening of the film, which zooms in on the house and suddenly takes us inside, the viewer begins to see David in a different light. “The thing I don’t understand,” David says, “is how really close lifelong couples share a single bed for all their lives.” David hadn’t come out as gay until age 62.
Simon begins to understand how he and David are so similar. David had told him that people like them weren’t meant to have relationships. Simon had come out at 23, and went in again at 36. “Now I didn’t know whether I was coming or going most of the time,” says Simon. “Maybe the freedom that David and I loved so much,” says Simon as the camera shows a single jogger in the fog, “was something we paid for with loneliness.” As much as David frustrates Simon, there is a subdued sense of unconditional love and acceptance and authenticity that drives the story.
It’s easy to be repulsed by those looking for a handout form David. Zibby and Beata, David’s neighbors, begin helping. But money is being removed from David’s account at a staggering rate—a credit card given to Beata for shopping, 25,000 pounds given to Roderigo. And it’s not that David isn’t aware—it’s that he simply doesn’t care. What appears, from the outside, to be a story we know too well—an old man being taken advantage of—isn’t exactly what it seems. “Life is a game, but it’s a serious game,” David says while talking to himself for the umpteenth time.
With Christmas coming, Zibby and Beata—having a falling out with their landlord—move in with David. They bring along six dogs. There is an absurdity of all of them singling Christmas songs when suddenly the film cuts to fire engines and ambulances and flames. The next morning, quiet images of David’s stuff, covered in soot, fill the screen. “I suppose the good news was that nobody died in the fire,” says Simon. “Except for one of the dogs.”
Simon thinks of his mom and how she looked over his grandparents over a period of 30 years. “It was just expected of her because she was a woman,” he says. “And it made me feel scared about my own future. In some way I’d ended up with a responsibility that I’d never asked for. To be honest, at times I’d wished David had just died in the fire.”
Tensions rise. “In the same way that King Lear decided to give away his kingdom to his three daughters, David had decided that he would give his house away to Beata,” Simon narrates while David reads from a red-colored cover of King Lear. “I was worried that we might have to sell it to pay for his care. He could go on living for 10 years.”
Simon finds a house for retired actors and without giving anyone any notice they “swooped in and took him away.” If the plan works out, Simon hopes David will never see the neighbors again. It was true that they’d made so many moments for each other, and Simon wonders “why was I placed in this impossible position of having to play God and break them all up?” It’s a poignant moment, and all too familiar.
At first, David is ecstatic at his apparent stroke of luck: “It’s like a dream of being a very very wealthy person, having all these people coming and asking you what you need and bringing it to you. It’s a really incredible world…Aren’t I lucky?” A woman plays cello in his room. He orders “bubbly.” Three women in yellow dresses sing to him bedside. “Death,” David says, “it’s like going on the most wonderful holiday without any of the bother of packing.”
Months go by, the care home costing over 1000 pounds per week. “Maybe now I could start to think about what I wanted to do with my life,” says Simon. And then suddenly, David calls up Simon in middle of night. “And that’s when King Lear had his storm,” narrates Simon.
The doctors discover a severe urinary infection, which was backing up into his kidneys and then into his bloodstream, impacting his brain. Simon gets a catheter, and all seems well. Simon and David start singing, “I believe in miracles, you sexy thing.” David dances in bed, back in the care home. But the doctors offer a grim diagnosis—something the audience is expecting all along.
Conversations take a turn. Simon asks David what matters to him now.
“Between the past and the future, for me, they are all one.” David says that he’s not just looking for bliss, but “knows that it’s there.”
“What did you mean,” Simon asks David, “when you said that you’d learned more about life in the last few weeks than the rest of your life put together?”
“I feel it’s true,” David says. “Looking back you can understand how it all falls into place, especially when you’re lucky like me and it doesn’t all happen suddenly.” The film ends similar to how it begins: snow falling on an unassuming park before a fade to black.
Much Ado About Dying screened at the IFI Documentary Festival on the 21st of September