Love Is Strange review: subtle and nuanced in ways which, I’m assuming, Fifty Shades is not

Deborah Ross catches a subtle humdinger of a film about love and real estate

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

Love Is Strange

15, Nationwide

You will be wondering why I haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey as this is very much Fifty Shades of Grey week and although I’m as curious and excited as anybody — how has Sam Taylor-Johnson filmed a book which, let’s face it, is quite a bit shit? — there were no UK media screenings prior to going to press. This means I will now have to pay and see it at the cinema, which is something, I know, you little people do all the time, but still, who does one go with? As it happens, my mother (86) expressed an interest, but I had to tell her: no way. ‘Mum,’ I said, ‘I love you and would do anything for you but, in the words of Meatloaf, “I won’t do that.”’ Who do you go with? Tell me, please.

So, disappointing, not to be able to give you Fifty today, here, right now, but I’m also grateful, in a way, as otherwise I might have missed Love Is Strange, which comes at love from the opposite end of the spectrum, when it’s quietened down over the years, and is subtle and nuanced in ways which, I’m assuming, Fifty is possibly not. Plus — and this is a big plus, a major plus, a humdinger of a plus — it stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow and if you don’t think a film is worth seeing simply by virtue of starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, you may well be mad, on top of being a little person. A mad little person. That’s you.

They play George (Molina) and Ben (Lithgow), a New York gay couple who, after 39 years together, decide to get married, and it opens with their lovely wedding day in Manhattan. However, their marriage has ramifications, causing George to get fired from his job as choir director at a Catholic school — the school always knew he was gay and had a long-term partner but the bishop, in his bishop wisdom, draws the line at marriage — and this, in turn, causes them to lose their apartment, which they can no longer afford. In the end, they must separate, with George going to live with their downstairs neighbours, a pair of partying gay cops, while Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), Elliot’s wife, Kate (the always terrific Marisa Tomei), and their tricky teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). As much as this is about love and being apart and how love endures being apart, it’s also about real-estate: how we all need a home of our own, and how hellish it is to be a house guest in someone else’s home. ‘When you live with people,’ Ben tells George, sighingly, ‘you know them better than you care to.’

A humdinger of a plus: Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in ‘Love Is Strange’

Written and directed by Ira Sachs, this is a non-action film of the kind that determinedly shuns any melodrama. All major events happen off screen while the focus is on the small everyday interactions that make up a life. This isn’t about beginnings or endings, but middles, is the best way I can think of expressing it, and these middles add up to a series of delicious moments. Some of the moments are humorous (here’s George being explained Game of Thrones by his new housemates) while some are painful (here’s George waiting for the partying to cease so he can finally go to bed on the couch; here’s Ben annoying Kate through no fault of his own, beyond simply being around and being Ben and getting under her feet).

Quiet, then, in terms of happenings, but busy when it comes to feelings. This is full of feeling, and Molina and Lithgow more than live up to their billing; they convey emotion in any number of wordless vignettes, or simply by hailing a taxi or eating their dinner. (How do they do that? I don’t know.)Ben is dreamily sad, George is younger and stronger, but mostly they just love each other, and want only to lean into each other, like plants towards the light, and when they do meet up, it is not only bittersweet, but also seems right. There is such an ease, it’s as if Molina and Lithgow have lived together for the past 40 years, and these are the kind of performances that more than compensate for what might otherwise be the film’s limitations: too much Chopin on the soundtrack; longueurs that occasionally border on the enervating; certain plot points you are simply expected to buy, like: why won’t George and Ben consider moving outside the city, when it would mean they could stay together? And: wouldn’t it have made more sense for George and Ben to let their apartment rather than sell it?

Love Is Strange doesn’t explain much — why does Elliot’s marriage seem off? What is Joey’s relationship with that Russian boy, Vlad? — but it sets up a thrum under the skin, as if you’re living all this alongside everyone, and it always feels real and true. Next week, a very different kind of skin thrumming, as not viewed with my mother, or anyone else I can think of. I may well end up going alone but that’s OK: luckily, I do own a raincoat, and I wouldn’t call it clean, so I shall probably fit right in.

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  • little islander

    Know a little Molina but have loved Lithgow for 40 years. What about your son? If he refuses, take it as an insult and punch him (you are not little, Ms Helmsley,,,I mean, Ms Ross). That would give a whole new meaning to the Pope’s famous words. Might even seriously help clear things up for other little people.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    How unfortunate!

    Jasper Fforde has written a very good book called ‘Shades of Grey’. Which is nothing like the subject of this review…