Two Lovers review

Phoenix and Paltrow just want someone to love…

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Joaquin Phoenix is not an actor. Not anymore, he says. He’s a musician.

Announcing his retirement from acting last October, Phoenix has since grown a beard and a gut and was last seen rapping like someone’s granddad in Las Vegas . Which is a real shame. Not just for the rap industry. But for all of us. Because Joaquin Phoenix is an actor. And nothing is a more bracing reminder of that fact than his performance in James Gray’s Two Lovers.

In a startling, wordless opening scene, we watch bi-polar photographer Leonard ( Phoenix ) calmly taking a long walk off a short pier: sinking, sinking, sinking... Then suddenly kicking his way back to the surface. After that abortive suicide attempt, he moves back with his parents in Brooklyn , unsure who to entrust his broken heart to.

Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is a lovely, caring brunette who makes him feel safe. She’s the girl next door. But the actual girl next door is something else. Wild, mysterious and maybe as damaged as he is, Michelle (Gywneth Paltrow) is a livewire blonde who ignites Leonard every time he sees her. And then she introduces him to her rich, married boyfriend.

Maverick filmmaker James Gray’s rare, special film feels like the best kind of modern love story: one that could have taken place anywhere at any time. He deepens Leonard’s eternal romantic struggle into something dark, intense and enigmatic – powered all the way by a full cast of emotional, compulsive performances.

Paltrow gives her best turn since... well, ever. But it’s Phoenix who tractor-beams your attention. At the centre of nearly every painful, funny scene, he effortlessly conveys Leonard’s uncertain, complex blur of vulnerability, anger, humour, impulsiveness and – more than anything – his need to love.

When it comes, the inevitable finale plays out with a subtlety and restraint that’s genuinely wrenching. Even more wrenching than watching a bearded 34-year-old white man rapping in Vegas.

Jonathan Crocker

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