Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
Watch The Lovers online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (Momma’s Man, Terri), this middle-aged sex comedy has a plot that sounds like it was stolen from a French farce or a 1970s British sitcom. However, although the set-up lends itself to silliness, the resulting film is a subtly executed, sharply observed and very funny comedy that asks some difficult questions.
Debra Winger (making a welcome return to the screen after a too-long absence) and Tracy Letts play middle-aged, long-married couple Mary and Michael. As the film opens, both are in the middle of secret affairs, Mary with needy writer Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Michael with tempestuous dance teacher Lucy (Melora Walters). Both have given in to their younger lovers’ demands that they break off their marriage and have agreed to wait until a planned visit from their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), to break the news in person.
However, one morning, Mary and Michael share a kiss in bed after a moment of sleepy, early morning confusion. One thing leads to another and they soon find themselves falling in love again and having passionate sexual encounters. As their ‘affair’ continues, both Michael and Mary begin cheating on their younger lovers, experiencing a giddy joy as they rediscover their love for each other.
The performances are a treat. Winger and Letts have a nuanced chemistry that makes their love scenes as convincing as the scenes where they’re bored and irritated with each other. Gillen and Walters are equally good in support (if perhaps overly whiny), and Ross is very good as the self-righteous son who has built his parents up to his girlfriend (Jessica Sula) as a toxic couple forever at each others’ throats, and isn’t at all prepared for what he finds when he visits.
Jacobs’ script is extremely perceptive, gleefully exploring the delicious irony of a married couple having an affair with each other. It’s also subtle enough to leave certain details for the audience to work out on their own, such as the fact that on some level, Robert and Lucy represent lost parts of themselves, both in their relative youth and their artistic careers – pointedly, both Mary and Michael are stuck in boring desk jobs.
Jacobs’ direction is equally impressive, particularly in his depiction of Mary and Michael’s sofa-bound life together – a single shot of them both watching TV and drinking wine, together but separate, says more about their marriage than a dozen pages of dialogue. Jacobs understands the value of silence, giving it palpable weight in several different scenes.
In addition to mining the subject for its comic potential, the film has several interesting things to say, not least about ideas of familiarity in long-term relationships and how that can have both a good and bad side. It asks a series of difficult questions, without offering easy answers, presenting its characters as deeply flawed, yet all too recognisable. The film’s final grace note is its intriguing score by Mandy Hoffman (Jacobs’ frequent collaborator), which initially seems absurdly orchestral and over-the-top, but ultimately feels just right – and makes inspired use of an ’80s pop song.
The Lovers is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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