A poignant New York story of love in a dark time, Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange makes for a fine romance of the most human kind.
Love In The Afternoonby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard to follow Ira Sachs’ heartwrenching and heartwarming paean to love Keep The Lights On, and yet somehow he’s managed it. And while his previous film was a keenly scripted story to the unique trials and tribulations facing gay love, Love Is Strange is a universal story, using the under-represented older gay couple as the starting point to explore the idea of familial love, or storge, and how it fares when put under pressure. Indeed, George and Ben’s love is never called into question – and what better tribute to the normalness of gay love than the cinematic boringness of steadfast mutual devotion? Unlike Keep The Lights On, there are no drugs, careers or flings to derail their relationship. Instead Love Is Strange looks at the patience, forgiveness and compassion that keeps loved ones together.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have it all – friends, family, each other and a Manhattan apartment they’ve lived in for years. But when, after 39 years together, they decide to get married, George is fired from his teaching post as the choir director in a Catholic school. With Ben retired and on only a meagre painter’s income, George and Ben are no longer able to afford their Manhattan apartment. Temporarily homeless and trying to find an affordable apartment, they turn to their friends and family for help; Ben moves in with his nephew Eliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), setting up his easel on their Brooklyn roof, kipping on Joey’s bunkbed and not quite able to stay out of the family’s way. While George stays with gay cops Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) – unable to get a decent night’s sleep – what with their uncomfortable couch and late-night parties. It’s a testing time all round – trying the patience of love.
For those cinema-goers who might know John Lithgow and Alfred Molina better for their more curmudgeonly roles in Chocolat or Interstellar, Ben and George make for an unexpectedly delightful couple. With tender, sensitive performances from both actors, their relationship is refreshingly free from clichés – just a deep love for each other couched in a long glance or a prolonged touch. It’s in no small measure due to a brilliant script from Sachs and his regular co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, negotiating the intricacies of human relationships with razor-sharp precision. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the gentle aggravations that rub Ben and Kate up the wrong way – an interloping chatterbox disturbing the peace, as well as the dinner table around which family problems can no longer be resolved without the unsolicited advice of an outsider.
With a dramatic and quietly devastating prolonged fade to black, everything changes when Ben dies. George is finally able to move into a new rent-controlled apartment, but it’s empty and shrouded in a heavy, dark grief. But it’s a deliciously tender moment, as Joey comes to visit, bringing with him Ben’s final painting and unshouldering the guilt he feels for his oft snubbed uncle. But as he leaves on his skateboard, he meets and skates with a girl – perhaps the one that got away he told Ben about. And in a beautiful crepuscular New York street scene, gorgeously lensed by Christos Voudoris, it’s a magical ending – a tribute to the sometimes awkward but ultimately irreplaceable love of family. A love that makes us who we are.
Despite pitch-perfect performances from Molina and Lithgow as a sexagenarian gay couple, Love Is Strange ditches romance in favour of a more universal, ubiquitous love. And in Ira Sachs’ humble, restrained style, it’s a vital reminder of the importance of family – whether blood relatives or a chosen circle. Those relationships might be tested, in cramped apartments and over awkward mealtimes, but Love Is Strange is a warning against the fleeting nature of love, caught in the web of lives. The bedrock that can be leaned on even when that Significant Other is gone. Unashamedly romantic and profoundly haunting, Love Is Strange is the most heartbreaking, heartwarming film you’ll see this year.
Love Is Strange is released on 13th February 2015 in the UK