Mature love might be a tad more visible nowadays at the movies – running the gamut from the frothy Hope Springs to the poignant Away From Her. But where’s the gay long-term love story that will stretch beyond Brokeback Mountain’s period tragedy or The Birdcage’s frilly farce?
Right here, in Ira Sach’s delicate, bittersweet, grizzled New York romance, where music teacher George (Alfred Molina) and retired painter Ben (John Lithgow) are finally tying the knot after 39 years together. ‘For better, for worse’ kicks in right away for the lovebirds, as George’s same-sex union gets him sacked from his Catholic school, forcing Ben and George to sell their Manhattan flat and go couch-surfing separately with party-loving friends and fraying family.
Sachs, whose raw Keep The Lights On (2012) examined a fragile, self-destructive love, paints an equally telling portrait of an enduring bond tested by life’s sudden sideswipes. It’s understated and at times lightly comic where Amour was searing. But like Michael Haneke’s film, it musters the same fierce determination by a couple to sustain intimacy in the face of mounting odds.
Despite its topicality, this isn’t a banner-waving message movie about gay marriage and intolerance. Sure, Sachs is acute about the prickles of homophobia. But its predicament is more universal, a smart new spin on that timeless old-and-a-burden dilemma that made 1937’s Make Way For Tomorrow and Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) such heart-wringers.
Family friction, and what grows out of it, is at its heart, as Ben moves from adored uncle to bunk-bed blocker for his frayed niece Kate (a sensitive, near-shrewish Marisa Tomei). If this sounds like a sitcom, it feels astonishingly like life. Like Boyhood, this is a film about the flow of the everyday, stitching together mundane events so deftly handcrafted that every moment is meaningful; even Ben painting the New York skyline that he’s exiled from, on a Brooklyn rooftop.
For Manhattan is our pair’s other great love, and this three-way is fuelled by many lingering, Woody Allen-inflected shots of West Village streets and skylines. The death-knell of the arty, affordable, activist NYC is hammered home with uncharacteristic obviousness about rent rises and tiny flats, the movie’s biggest bum notes.
They’re scarcely audible though, against the warm rhythms of this tender, interrupted pair, who seem as worn-in as old shoes. Molina’s minimalist performance is fine stuff, but Lithgow’s fate-battered compassionate lover is exceptional.