VOD film review: Love Is Strange
Ivan Radford | On 28, Jun 2015
Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow
After 39 years together, a couple in Manhattan get married. Then, things go wrong. But it’s not in the usual way that love goes wrong on the screen, with an affair, or a fading attraction. Rather, it’s everything else that goes wrong around it.
Our couple in question, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), have a loving relationship that has remained stable and constant for decades. They live together in a nice apartment, Ben a painter and George a music teacher at a Catholic school. When they decide to get hitched, though, word spreads to the archdiocese, who fire him on the spot. As a result, the pair can no longer afford to live in their home, leaving them to surf the sofas and spare beds of friends and family.
On the surface, Love Is Strange could be written off as First World Problems: The Movie, but Ira Sachs’ film has so much heart and depth that it’s impossible not to be caught up in it. That depth is built from the tiniest of touches, be it a smile emerging from underneath Molina’s magnificent beard, or a hand being held by the stubborn Lithgow. Even the big moments avoid any hints of melodrama: where the scene involving his Catholic superiors could have spiralled into a loud debate about judgement, inequality and acceptance, it instead unfolds as quietly as real life does. “Would you like to pray together?” George is asked. He replies, simply: “I’d rather pray alone.”
That subtle realism flows through each encounter, as relatives and acquaintances try to be supportive of our couple, but, inevitably, are caught up in their own problems. Marisa Tomei’s believably stressed-out wife and Darren Burrows’ Elliot are married too, but they have none of the easy synergy that defines our leads’ bond.
As we hop from one home to another, what emerges is a study of intimacy in a very physical sense: merely being in a room where they would normally not, our characters disrupt each other’s family lives, forcing them to be unusually close to each other. The unfamiliarity of that proximity is as alien as the separation experienced by our newly weds. Finding company with, in George’s case, a pair of cops who love partying and Game of Thrones, is horrible, while Ben takes himself up to the roof to find space to paint.
Sachs proves himself to be an astute documenter of human emotion. The director specialises in something cinema can be brilliant at: capturing the passage of time. Gentle fade-outs take us further down the road, as the situation seems to go on without end – much like his previous film, Keep the Lights On. Where that was a heart-wrenching look at a relationship’s breakdown, though, this is the opposite: a portrait of affection that only seems to get stronger. Sachs gives his husbands enough relaxed space to make their love not just apparent but also engaging; George may pray alone, but this is a faith that requires interaction.
There is an intimacy, too, in the images (shot by DoP Christos Voudouris), which make us feel like we’re also living with these characters. As the gentle, ensemble focus gives us a glimpse of the younger generation in the shadow of George and Ben – there is speculation surrounding Kate’s son, Joey, and his classmate, Vlad – Sachs’ story grows into a beautiful tribute to love in all its forms, an ever-fixed mark that passes through generations as well as years.
In a month where the USA has finally ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, there seems no better film to express the joy of commitment. In the realm of cinema, a catalogue of infidelity and break-ups, such happy love is perhaps strange indeed. Sachs makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world.