Film Review: Our Souls at Night

A flawed yet ultimately lovely film centering on a mature romance and starring two icons.
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Despite a few age and class-defying intrusions (including Jane Fonda’s stunningly well-preserved appearance) and the replacing of elusive narrative threads with glib snippets, Our Souls at Night is a gentle, autumnal romance starring Fonda and her longtime onscreen lover Robert Redford—a celluloid chemistry that spans more than half a century (The Chase, Barefoot in the Park, The Electric Horseman).

Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from the late Kent Haruf’s elegiac and spare novel (his last), the film recounts the unlikely love story between Addie Moore and Walter Lewis, both widowed septuagenarians living in the sleepy imaginary town of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Haruf’s haunting fiction, and a place where time has stood still. Tongues wag without too much provocation, and while cellphones exist, Addie still looks up telephone numbers in her handwritten address book.

One night, Addie unexpectedly surfaces at Lewis’ house and asks the puzzled Lewis, who has lived as a recluse for decades, if he’d like to spend the night with her. “I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk…I’m not talking about sex.”

Lewis is startled by the suggestion, to say the least—a subtly drawn comic moment—but its appeal grows and the following night, brown paper bag in hand, he arrives at Addie’s back door. He doesn’t want the neighbors to see him, and the paper bag, further subterfuge, contains his pajamas. There are some exquisitely observed details throughout this woman-driven narrative directed by a man, Ritesh Batra.

Thus begins their love story based on mutual need for companionship that’s most intense in the dark, predawn hours. It’s an alliance that evolves slowly as bits of personal history are revealed. A retired schoolteacher, Lewis remains tormented by a brief extramarital affair he had that irreparably damaged his marriage and relationship with his daughter Holly (Judy Greer), who now lives hours away in Colorado Springs. Addie also has her demons. Her five-year-old daughter Connie was hit by a car and killed when Addie turned away for one moment, and her husband and son Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts) were shattered. Nothing was ever the same.

It’s not difficult to fathom their mutual attraction. Fonda’s Addie is one self-contained, grounded woman who knows her own mind, and Redford’s Louis is a sensitive Everyman who is in fact not an Everyman at all.

Addie insists Lewis visit her through the front door and after a time he does. They appear in public together, and community gossips exchange glances. But after a while they’re no longer news.

Their lives move along at an even keel until Gene, whose wife has jumped ship, suddenly appears on the scene to drop off his seven-year-old son Jamie (Iain Armitage) while he attempts to settle his marital affairs. An unhappy kid, Jamie is comforted by Addie’s warmth and especially Lewis, who becomes a pal. He sets up a toy train set for him, teaches him how to throw a ball, and gets him a dog, Bonnie, an injured mutt they all love. The metaphor is clear. Addie, Lewis and Jamie have become a family, a second chance at doing it right.

But when the foursome (including Bonnie) returns from an Edenic camping trip, Gene has resurfaced, repelled by the presence of Lewis in his mother’s and especially his son’s life. His overstated reaction is a stumbling block in the film (and the novel), which I’ll get to in a moment.

Like his two previous films, The Sense of an Ending (based on Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize novel), and The Lunchbox, Souls is leisurely paced and restrained in tone. Similarly, Batra focuses his lens on seniors, but here his vision is the sharpest. He makes palpable the heady freedom that comes when one’s life is largely viewed through the rear-view mirror, even as the past and the distortions of memory continue to inform the journey.

Of course, casting Fonda and Redford adds a whole new dimension. They’re more than fine actors and they are that. They’re also icons that the audience has come to know in the 50-plus years the duo has appeared onscreen together, made all the more pointed in watching them age as a couple through the second half of the 20th and now into the 21st century.

Nostalgia kicks in a bit too, as their films mirror our own disappearing years and the social transformations that have occurred. The movies are benchmarks in the evolution of cultural sensibilities, not to mention the portrayal of men, women and romance.

In Lillian Hellman’s 1966 The Chase, an overwrought melodrama peppered with mythic western and social-justice themes, Redford plays the wrongly accused bad boy on the run—anti-hero, ’60s style—while Fonda is his misunderstood, sluttish wife who still loves him though she has entered an affair with someone else.

A year later in Neil Simon’s innocuous comedy Barefoot in the Park—with many of its jokes confirming the out-of-towner’s stereotypic tropes of New York life—Redford is the beleaguered stiff of a husband newly married to a free-spirited, spontaneous wife who can’t keep her hands off him; Fonda’s onscreen alter-ego is the unabashed comic male fantasy, circa 1967.

By 1979, the social revolution is evident in Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman. Set in and around Las Vegas, the film is awash in its implicit commentary about wasted lives and kitschy materialism. Fonda is Hallie, an independent TV reporter, gung ho on getting her scoop as she chases after Redford’s Sonny, a washed up ex-cowboy reduced to doing tacky commercials, who pulls himself together to save a horse’s life. He’s become an anti-corporate environmentalist if ever there was one. Predictably, they join forces and fall in love.

Now circling their 80th birthdays, the stars are together again. With the passage of time and their shared body of work, the line between the fictional characters they’ve played and the actors themselves has grown increasingly tenuous. They’re almost playing themselves and we like them for it. A major part of Batra’s battle is already won.

Still, the film is not flawless. While it captures the diminished expectations that come with age—the Addie-Lewis relationship emerges from loss while embodying it—aging also implies physical changes that are not as fully realized here as they should be. Redford takes a stab at a stooped posture and shuffling gait, but short of grey hair, Fonda’s appearance doesn’t begin to suggest a woman who is pushing 80.

And their sexuality is not compromised by their advancing years either—not that they get around to an intimate encounter immediately. That takes some building up to, though when they finally decide to give it a shot, they’re just a little too functioning after decades of inactivity. In the novel there’s more reticence on both sides. Lewis is tentative in his lovemaking. The first time out he’s unable to perform. Perhaps revising those scenes wasn’t simply a misguided narrative choice on Batra’s part, but rather one that had far more to do with the cult of personality, fear of trampling on the dual Fonda-Redford image.

And then there’s the introduction of Lewis’ daughter Holly, who makes an appearance to rehash old resentments and point out that her therapist urged her to confront her father. It’s all very contemporary, but what does it add? In the novel, her spectral presence is far more potent.

But Batra’s biggest miscalculation is Gene’s relationship with Addie. Gene has been enraged at his mother over a lifetime and his reaction to Lewis is excessively hostile. In Haruf’s spin, Gene’s motivations are open to interpretation. The ambiguity—or lack of clarity, depending on viewpoint—is still preferable to the psychobabble Gene spews forth, violating the story’s quiet aesthetic and resulting in Addie making a 180-degree turn that breaches credibility. Without giving it all away, suffice it to say her actions are not prepared for and tarnish everything that the viewer has gotten to know about Addie.

It’s an old adage, but once again the book is superior to the film. Nonetheless, visually the film is exquisite and adds a new layer, bringing a three-dimensionality to the written word—from Stephen Goldblatt’s evocative photography of neon-lit small-town Americana flanked by snow-tipped mountains on all sides to Lewis standing at the sink,  cleaning up after his meal, washing and rinsing one plate, one cup, one fork.

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