“It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” While this usually relates to the physical loss of someone, it can just as easily fit for the distressing condition, dementia. The Notebook’s Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) may not have lost Noah (Ryan Gosling), but she lost the memory of him, and maybe that’s not all too different. When the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel hit the big screen in 2004, it wasn’t long before it was being dubbed the next big romance. After all, what says romance better than lovers embracing in the pouring rain? (Minus the drowned rat look, of course). But while it may have gotten lost amongst the saturated marketplace that is the romance genre, its deeply affecting portrayal of dementia still stands out to this day.
Today, there are several on-screen depictions of dementia, the most recent of which is The Father. Filmed in such a way that the viewer experiences much of the same confusion as someone living with this condition, it quickly garnered praise. And Anthony Hopkins even picked up the ultimate accolade — the Oscar — for his portrayal. Yet, while there has been plenty of material that has given us a good insight into the day-to-day reality for sufferers and their families, The Notebook gave us something different. And coming out in 2004, it was one of the first movies that delved into the topic.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes, The Notebook is a classic boy meets girl tale. Meeting as teenagers, headstrong rich girl, Allie, and poor boy with a heart of gold, Noah, are instantly inseparable. But, as the saying goes, “the course of true love never did run smooth.” Barriers, such as disapproving parents and insecurities, start disrupting their blissful bubble, ultimately leading to separation.
Well, for seven years that is, before they get their happy ending. But while this storyline may not sound all that unique, there’s another storyline going on also — the one of the aged Allie and Noah. We soon discover that Allie (Gena Rowlands) now has Alzheimer’s and lives in a home. Every day, Noah (James Garner), known as Duke, reads to her from a notebook. This notebook tells the story of their love, but to Allie, it is simply fantasy. Despite being told repeatedly by doctors that Allie just won’t remember, Noah never gives up hope. “Science goes only so far, then comes God,” he argues.
Seeing this deeply affecting condition played out before our eyes is bound to be heartbreaking in any form. Yet, there is something even more moving about seeing it interspersed with joyful youth. The audience gets to see the full life this woman led. Her love, her talents, and her ambition were at once what made up her existence. The juxtaposition, from a fun-loving Allie frolicking in the expansive sea, to a woman trapped by her own mind, is a sobering reminder of the fragility of life. When Noah sits down at the table opposite Allie to read to her, she simply sees a man. She doesn’t see everything he represents – her first love, her first breakup, and her hard-fought love story. Although when she says, “I think I’ve heard this before,” we see a glimmer of memory breaking through. Of course, at the end we find out this is actually her story. “Read this to me & I’ll come back to you,” is inscribed under the title “The Story of Our Lives.” While forgetting her one true love may seem the worst fate, we soon find out it gets worse, as she has children. On a visit to see the mother who no longer knows them, we see the kids playing along, introducing themselves as Duke’s children.
But one of the most upsetting scenes comes when Allie remembers Noah. “It was us!” she tearfully exclaims over a candlelit dinner. Sweeping Allie up in a strong embrace, he tells her they may only have five minutes together before she forgets again. It is in this scene that we see why Noah hasn’t given up the fight. He is living for these small, yet magical moments when she remembers him. However, things soon turn sour when she snaps at him for calling her darling. It’s not long before staff come rushing in to restrain the agitated Allie, while Noah weeps. So, if a tear hasn’t escaped by now, this moment may just do it.
Although The Notebook received some criticism for its highly romanticized vision of dementia and caregiving, it still carries with it an important message on the power of unconditional love and unwavering hope. It shows a man giving his life to another in the purest of ways and a woman who lived a full life and gave her love freely. And, although she may not remember it, she provided beautiful memories for others in her presence and at the end of the day, perhaps that’s what counts most.