LIFF28 - Love Is Strange - Cinema Review

'The vast majority of Love Is Strange's successes stem directly from the performances of Lithgow and Molina, their relationship feeling entirely and effortlessly authentic'.

Director and co-writer Ira Sachs laid an awful lot of the success of Love Is Strange at the feet of his two leads when making his film. On viewing the finished product, it's a decision which arguably pays off. But it also makes Sachs' film a frustrating watch, ultimately leaving you wondering how much better it could have been had the filmmaker put more effort into the areas where his film feels considerably lacking.

Two people who cannot be faulted here, however, are co-leads John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. A couple of nearly forty years, Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) decide to marry, only for George to lose his job teaching music at a Catholic school as a result, forcing the aging newlyweds to live separately and lean heavily on the support of friends and family. The vast majority of Love Is Strange's successes stem directly from the performances of Lithgow and Molina, their relationship feeling entirely and effortlessly authentic.

Ben and George are by definition a gay couple, but theirs may be one of the most subtly genuine presentations of a relationship, homosexual or otherwise, to be found on film. Every moment the two lead actors share on screen together, you believe you are watching two people who have been in love for close to four decades, and you entirely believe in their distress and heartbreak at having to separate so soon after their wedding. Both actors also excel individually, with Lithgow delivering a masterclass in subtle comedy, whilst Molina gives one of the most touchingly understated performances I can remember ever witnessing on screen.

It's all the more frustrating therefore that the rest of Love Is Strange feels arrogantly underdeveloped, as if Sachs believed that his co-leads would be enough to carry his film. Every other character aside from Ben and George feels flat and unfinished, with several of the couple's friends and family who celebrated and toasted their nuptials in the opening act revealed as selfish and insincere by the film's conclusion. Whilst this in itself isn't necessarily an issue, Sachs gives very little reason for this development, ultimately turning pretty much his entire supporting cast into people we either don't like, don't care about, or a combination of the two.

Sachs' narrative follows a similar lackadaisical structure, essentially having very little actually happen for a considerable portion of the story following Ben and George's separation, other than both men getting in the way of the people with whom they are respectively staying. A subplot involving Ben's great nephew Joey (Charlie Tahan) and his friend Vlad (Eric Tabach) stealing books from school feels tedious and adds very little to the film overall, a problem exacerbated by Sachs' decision to leave it without any real conclusion. Even Ben and George's relationship starts to feels lacking in direction during the final third, something which Sachs erroneously believes can be remedied through one sudden and unexpected development at the commencement of the film's coda.

The successes and failures within Love Is Strange end up as so distinct and polarised that, in the end, I had to weigh my enjoyment of the film whilst watching against the frustration I experienced whilst reflecting on it afterwards to arrive at my final judgement. Ultimately, my enjoyment came out on top, but not by a wide margin and pretty much entirely due to either one or both of Lithgow and Molina being on screen for more or less the whole of Sachs' film. Love Is Strange is definitely worth seeing for the brilliant performances from its veteran lead pair, even if it sadly brings disappointingly little to the table whenever you look past them.

The 28th Leeds International Film Festival took place from 5th-20th November 2014 at cinemas around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. More information is available via the official LIFF website.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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