Next in our series about films our writers have reconsidered, Emily Maskell on how grief changed her view of Wes Anderson's comedy
The first time I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, at a friend’s house with a buffering connection forcing an intermission every half hour, the charm of Wes Anderson’s 2001 tragicomedy was completely lost on me. Looking back, it wasn’t the oddball humour, the offbeat characters, or even their eccentric idiosyncrasies that made Anderson’s third feature an initially unmemorable viewing experience. Simply put, it was that the film struck a chord of grief quietly ricocheting at a frequency I couldn’t hear.
While I was acquainted with numerous titles from the Anderson cinematic universe, The Royal Tenenbaums felt grounded in some distantly whimsical world. I desperately wanted to appreciate Margot’s sharp bob and caramel fur coat and understand why the film repeatedly appeared in “must watch” listicles, but it all just seemed obscurely quirky.
To top it all off, I was left annoyed to no end when what I thought was a poignant metaphor – Richie’s hawk Mordecai coming back with more white feathers than before, returning home but forever changed – was only included because the original bird was kidnapped during filming and had to be replaced with a different hawk.
In the handful of years between my viewings of The Royal Tenenbaums, a lot had changed. I grew up, moved out, watched some more Anderson films and received bad news over the phone. Just as the younger Tenenbaums – Margot, Richie and Chas – reacted to their father’s diagnosis, I threw what was closest to me in a suitcase and went back to my family home, longing for my childhood bedroom – too small, but also just the right size to encase my heartbreak within its four walls.
Grief may not be the first thing that springs mind when most people think of Tenenbaums, but upon my second viewing, I saw the theme in every frame. Most obviously, it is apparent in Royal’s fake cancer diagnosis that brings his family together and later tears them apart. But it's there, too, in Ethel's archaeological study of skeletons, in the way Margot recklessly balances electron devices beside the bathtub, in Chas’ intense fear about his children’s fates, and in the family bonding attempts that occur during their visits to the cemetery.
Read More: Every Wes Anderson Film, Ranked
Seeing this dysfunctional family reconfigure their place in the home and around the hospital bed, I wondered: how did I miss such a touching exploration of mourning during my first watch? Or, did I need to experience the disorientation of loss to truly appreciate that the peculiarity of Anderson’s approach is perhaps the most visceral articulation?
My change of heart, however, was solidified in one line from Royal. Shuffling around the house, attached to an IV drip, he explains the desire to be surrounded by family stems from a need to “make up for lost time.” Gene Hackman delivers the line so casually, it stings like salt in a wound. Craving time with those he hurt the hardest but loves the most, The Royal Tenenbaums is subtle in its scripting of farewells. With no articulately penned soul-bearing monologues, these characters are silent in the face of preemptive mourning, because what is there to say to the dying as they sit there still alive in front of you?
The cruelty of the right words only arriving after the chance to express them has disappeared is perhaps Anderson’s most painfully real handling of grief. One scene exemplifying this quietly moving realisation involves Richie, lying in a hospital bed after a failed suicide, confessing he wrote his suicide note after the attempt. Although heartbreaking, I found a soothing sense of acceptance in the idea that, after all, there may be no such thing as the perfect goodbye. If even the characters of Anderson’s Oscar-nominated script were unable to articulate a faultless final adieu, perhaps I would have never found the right words either.
Anderson cradles this family drama steeped in grief with such gentleness, I find it hard to be disappointed in my younger self's naive inability to recognise the pervading sorrow within The Royal Tenenbaums’ muted 70s aesthetic. Now, Margot’s six-hour bath stints, Chas’ violent anxiety, and Richie’s inability to concisely articulate himself are no longer infuriating. Instead, they’re all too real. Seeing The Royal Tenenbaums again was an act of therapy, a chance to reconcile my own dealings with grief and a reminder to tell people you love them while you still have the chance.
The Royal Tenenbaums is available to stream on various digital platforms.