This film, currently showing at the Vic for a short time, is based on the book of the same name by Lois Wilson, the wife of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, and herself the founder of Al-Anon, the organisation for those whose lives are affected by alcoholism in family or friends. As the subject matter suggests, much of the film is quite harrowing, graphically demonstrating the devastation Bill’s drinking caused to those around him.
The film opens with Bill and Lois’ early days together and their joyful wedding, where Lois (Winona Ryder) sparkles with happiness and anticipation of the life they will lead. But things soon change – Bill goes away to war, and despite the joy of their reunion, Bill’s alcoholism soon begins to take hold. Lois’ maternal instincts are thwarted as she miscarries twice and becomes infertile, and Bill’s initial great success on the Stock Exchange is threatened and ultimately destroyed by the progress of his illness.
Bill loses his job and the family home, but after many years’ of pain, suffering and multiple relapses after which he swears to forsake the booze forever only to drink again, he discovers a way to stay sober and to help others stay sober too. His meeting with Dr Bob, the other founder of AA, and their work together soon lead to the foundation of the Fellowship, the publishing of the famous ‘Big Book’ and the establishment of AA meetings where alcoholics meet and share their experience strength and hope in order to stay sober and help others become sober. ‘Good for Bill’ as Lois’ concerned father wryly remarks.
Lois, however, continued to suffer, despite her support of Bill and the Fellowship, and ultimately she invites the other wives (the alcoholics were all men at that point) to join her in the kitchen while the AA meeting was in progress in the living room. Thus Al-Anon began and enabled those living with alcoholics to share their own stories. During this time, Lois and Bill had been moving from one home to another, staying with friends (50 moves in 2 years!) until a grateful friend of AA granted them the use of a home outside New York where they could settle.
Ryder and Barry Pepper, who plays Bill, were excellent in these roles, played very much as a movie of the time (1930s) would have done. Bill’s story is a side issue, but, as in real life, he often became the centre of attention – a fact Lois comments on towards the end of the film.
I would strongly recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in this devastating illness but also to anyone to whom alcoholism is a mystery. It may enlighten and challenge – it is not an easy film to watch – but it will certainly inform.