Film Review: Adore

This adaptation of a Doris Lessing novella about two lifelong female friends who take up with each other’s sons is long on looks and short of substance. Co-stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright and Aussie scenery may be draws, but word of mouth will

When French director Anne Fontaine is good, she is very, very good (Dry Cleaning, Nathalie, Coco Before Chanel, etc.), and when she isn’t, something like The Girl From Monaco happens. With Adore, Fontaine’s English-language debut, she again (helped by producer-husband Philippe Carcassonne) deals with female protagonists but comes up with middling results.

Not that getting it right would have been easy. There’s the lesser Doris Lessing source material to deal with and the greater challenge of cinematically meshing the often divergent French, British and Australian sensibilities and strengths into an organic whole. Add to this Aussie-Euro pudding Oscar-winning British screenwriter Christopher Hampton and there’s a tough international pot to stir.

Adore was primarily shot on a gorgeous Australian coast location of aqua waters and sandy beaches above which loom the lovely houses where Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) live as longtime close friends, neighbors and mothers of sons Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Roz’s offspring Tom (James Frecheville ). Both young men are handsome, hunky surfers on the brink of adulthood. They are understandably enough to make a mother proud and someone else’s mum horny.

Lil is widowed and Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), a drama teacher, is lured from the home front by a university job offer in theatre in Sydney. He wants his wife and son to follow, but Roz insists on remaining in the remote seaside country. Harold wonders if maybe she’s staying behind because of too strong a special friendship with Lil. No way, signals Roz.

Soon, Harold is off to Sydney and the women, after tasteful signals and initially discreet steps with the young men, are off and running with each other’s sons. The attractions are understandable: The guys are both nice and gorgeous and the mothers remain attractive. After small speed bumps, the four eventually accept the arrangement and all’s well and kept very much a secret until complications inevitably arise.

Incredibly, Harold somehow finds son Tom, who has no higher learning or experience in drama, an important theatre job in Sydney with a Gershwin musical production. Enter rising starlet Mary (Jessica Tovey), with whom Tom begins a flirtation that goes further. Meanwhile back home, Ian is pursued by young Hannah (Sophie Lowe), the kind of unimpressive local girl sometimes insinuated into romantic dramas like these. All the while, local man Saul (Gary Sweet) puts the make on widowed Lil and won’t take no for an answer until he too suspects that lesbianism has gotten in his way. Eventually both sons, having drifted from the mothers, wed their age-appropriate others, but it’s not long before the new wives see signs of tangled maternal apron strings.

It’s not the soft-core look that sinks Adore, but the superficial, diffident treatment of what should have been harder-core relationships that needed more grit and guts. (“Kitchen-sink” Brit films of the late ’50s and early ’60s perfected this more suitable approach.) If the super-gloss treatment undercuts emotional engagement, other elements destroy credibility. Wright does a nice job, but her Down Under accent drifts in and out. More egregious is the miscasting of Mendelsohn, whose bloke of a character seems more out of a Mike Leigh working-class film than the academic and creature of the theatre he’s supposed to be. The film also maintains an ambiguous, nervous and old-fashioned attitude about homosexuality by way of embarrassed giggles, furtive hints and blatant accusations that the two women are lesbians. (They aren’t.)