Dir: Ritesh Batra; Starring: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Iain Armitage, Matthias Schoenaerts, Judy Greer, Bruce Dern. Cert tbc, 101 mins
“We all have history,” shrugs Addie Moore, a widow living in small-town Colorado, when a friend advises that her new beau – a twinklingly handsome widower from a few doors down the street, called Louis Waters – has a rascally past. And in Addie and Louis’s case, the observation has a neat double resonance: the pair are played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, whose three-film partnership in the Sixties and Seventies, across The Chase, Barefoot in the Park and The Electric Horseman, set them apart as one of the most indecently gorgeous screen couples the movies ever produced.
Ritesh Batra’s Our Souls at Night, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, sees the actors reunited on camera for the first time since 1979. As a pairing, they’re still on fizzily vivacious form, with the kind of easy, involving chemistry – and, yes, sex appeal – that’s rarely seen on screen these days full stop, never mind when both parties are either side of 80. (Fonda is 79, Redford 81.) It’s pretty much the only remarkable thing in this biscuit-toned autumnal romance, adapted from a novel by Kent Haruf, but the whole package is still charming on its own cosy terms – the film equivalent of a loveable old hound that fetches your favourite slippers, rolls over for a tickle, curls up on your feet, contentedly passes wind, then nods off.
The film gets to work quick smart, as Addie presents herself on Louis’s doorstep in the opening scene with “a proposal of sorts” – not marriage, but not something entirely unlike it.
“Would you be interested in coming to my house some night to sleep with me?”, she asks, Fonda’s matter-of-fact delivery as quietly priceless as Redford’s reaction to it.
Addie isn’t interested in sex, just allaying the loneliness of her evening routine and feeling the comfort of company in bed. Louis may be socially out of practice himself – Addie has to prompt him to invite her in and to turn off the television – but he recognises that he shares the same need, and agrees to a trial run. The following evening, he sneaks around back with his overnight things bundled up in a brown paper bag for fear of being spotted. The two may have both been married once, but there’s something appealingly teenage about this new quasi-courtship.
Over the next few nights, Addie’s bed becomes a kind of duvet-topped, king-size therapy couch, as both she and Louis tentatively unpack their pasts in a way they hadn’t previously been able to do with anyone, even their spouses. Each marriage was blown off course by a defining sad event, which feels a little neat in writing terms, but as their characters reminisce, Redford and Fonda make their characters’ long-steeping regret ring true, and the film has enough faith in its stars to forgo the dreaded period flashbacks.
Meanwhile, outside of the bedroom, both of their lives gradually regain their savour – a major catalyst for which is Addie’s seven-year-old grandson Jamie (Iain Armitage), who’s all but dumped on her doorstep by her son Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose own marriage is in the first sore throes of divorce. In purely facial terms, Schoenaerts is smart casting – the Belgian actor passes seamlessly as Fonda’s son – but he ends up slightly adrift in a role that isn’t written meatily or distinctively enough to bear the weight of later plot developments.
In fact, the film feels on an entirely sure footing only when Redford’s around and centre stage. It’s Louis’s relationship with young Jamie that draws a tender tear, and his negotiation of loaded looks on the high street and jibes from his cronies in the local coffee shop that makes you wince. Still, it’s only thanks to both stars’ diligence and charm, plus Batra’s steady hand (which also guided the similarly sturdy Julian Barnes adaptation The Sense of an Ending earlier this year), that the ending lands quite as well as it does.
The film spryly manoeuvres itself away from the conclusion it initially makes you think you want, before alighting somewhere more unexpectedly satisfying and finely shaded. Some films, like some lives, have a funny way of working out.
Our Souls at Night will be released on Netflix on Friday 29th September
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