Netflix’s newest film continues their shaky track record when it comes to features. Based on the novel by Kent Haruf and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), the film centers on two elderly people in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Louis (Robert Redford; The Sting) and Addie (Jane Fonda; 9 to 5) have both lost their spouses years earlier and live alone. One afternoon, Addie visits Louis and makes a strange proposal. She wants him to sleep with her. Not anything more than that, just sleep. She is tired of being alone and wants someone to lay next to at night. What follows is their growing relationship and the effect it has on their humble lives.
It’s rare to see a cast this talented fall so flat. Seasoned and celebrated actors like Fonda and Redford, who have worked together onscreen before, completely lack the naturalism required. The soft-spoken, but straightforward dialogue of the book is mostly retained in the script, but is ruined by the delivery. If this was their feature debut, Fonda and Redford would not be getting calls from casting agents anytime soon. Their attempts at laconic delivery come off as awkward and surprised. They read their lines as if each statement is really a question and it kills any hope of establishing the mood required. The performances are so disconnected that if one actor had recorded their parts on a green screen and was later composited into the footage, I’d believe it. There are a few brief glimpses of the chemistry that could and should have existed, but the majority of the film is missing this vital ingredient.
Haruf’s novel was not the most obvious choice to adapt. At its core, it is a simple story without any of the trappings of typical movie. There are no villains, no major conflict, and no real stakes to speak of. The novel was a story of two lonely people near the end of their lives finding solace through companionship. What separated it from other books was its attention to detail. Haruf was able to capture the longing Louis and Addie had and the emptiness they felt without someone else in their lives. He knew the profound impact that a true emotional connection can have on a life and expressed it amidst the most modest of settings, but his work has been diluted in the film adaptation to the point of blandness.
None of Batra’s personal style is present here. His first two films took a gentle, compassionate approach to his characters and world which made him a perfect fit for this material, yet that approach is absent. The film is completely forgettable and misses the nuances of Louis and Addie’s relationship. The soft focus and earnest, but hushed speaking of his previous works are replaced by a flat production. Batra has put forth a workmanlike effort on what could have been his breakout feature. The obvious lack of interest behind the camera is a continual letdown as the movie settles for mediocrity. It may not be one of the worst films of the year, but it is certainly one of the most disappointing.
What does an old man think of in his twilight years? Two things come to mind: his end and his youth. Based on the award-winning novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending follows Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent; Cloud Atlas), a retired man who owns a small camera store. His life is routine until he receives an inheritance letter from the mother of an old girlfriend – his first serious relationship from his college years. She leaves him a diary and the event jogs memories he had buried away for decades. Unsure of why or what she would leave him, he tries to recall his past and reconnect with his ex to understand what could have made her mother remember him through all those years.
Despite its acclaim and short length, Barnes’ novel had been dismissed as a poor choice for adaptation. The novel was defined by its use of an unreliable narrator, a mechanic typically better suited to literature than to film. Its major theme was memory and the way it changes over time with the main character devoting page after page to discuss his own philosophy on the subject. Director Ritesh Batra chooses to overcome this obstacle by moving away from the nature of memories to discovering missed parts of one’s own past. He views Tony’s memories as incomplete due to his own preoccupation rather than inherently subjective.
Batra continues the intimate style exhibited in his first feature, The Lunchbox. He directs the film with a gentle, affectionate approach. Camera movements are slow and unobtrusive with characters held in shallow focus to not distract the audience. He is interested in the heart of these characters, not a display of style, and Batra’s restrained hand makes Tony a much more sympathetic character than he could have been. His impact is most evident in conversations. Characters speak to each other with a candid familiarity that betrays their remaining feelings. Few actual words are shared because they can communicate the message nonverbally. They have known each other long enough to fill in the blanks. This warm tone makes the film inviting, pulling the viewer deeper into the story and allowing them to let their guard down with the characters which is meant to make the final revelations all the more shocking.
However, despite his strength with mood, Batra can’t overcome issues with the screenplay. The film has mixed success in adapting the book. The script, by necessity of the medium, makes the ending much more conclusive. This may ruin the suspense for some. Where the book sparked conversations afterwards, the film’s explicitly sealed narrative will leave many unimpressed. The lack of an unreliable narrator might have been needed for the translation to film, but it deprives the story of most of its mystery. Instead of questioning each detail for its validity and wondering what else could have taken place, we just wait for the next piece of info to be handed to us. The script’s structure succeeds in keeping the audience following, but not inquisitive. Batra’s gentle direction is greatly appreciated, but the concessions made when changing mediums sap the story of its most compelling feature: its intrigue.