Tender, thoughtful, reserved, and intelligent, Love is Strange is a sensitive domestic tragedy about the finite nature of any union; a sophisticated take on contemporary urbanity and dissolution infused with romantic ideals; and a graceful tribute to the beauty of commitment in the face of adversity.
Ben and George, a same-sex couple from Manhattan, get married after 39 years together. George is a music teacher at a Catholic school, and when word of the marriage reaches the archdiocese, he is fired. Without his salary, the couple can no longer afford their New York apartment and are forced to ask their family and friends for shelter, resulting in their separation.
The two leads are magnificent in this affecting look at what happens after a happy ending. Conjuring four decades together as they enter the “for better or for worse” phase of their lives, Alfred Molina (An Education) and John Lithgow (Kinsey) turn in career-topping work. As Kate, Ben’s nephew’s novelist wife, Marisa Tomei – joining the first cast since The Wrestler to be worthy of her enormous talent – is remarkable. These are consummate artists who bring decades of experience to performances that are as emotionally expressive in silence as they are in words. Acting doesn’t get much better than this.
Love is Strange is about love in its many permutations. Writer-director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On) knows that the perfect marriage is a thing of phantom beauty – it doesn’t exist, yet we persist in believing that someone out there must have it. In Molina and Lithgow’s hands, the most ordinary of moments become illuminating, penetrating, and Sachs is courageous enough to sit in those moments instead of underlining them or hurrying past them. The challenges the couple face are more mundane than menacing, and in them, you understand the miracle and good fortune of finding love, and keeping it.
Though it recalls love stories as timeless as Make Way for Tomorrow and Brokeback Mountain, Love is Strange never achieves that sheer emotional resonance: it’s gently affecting, not deeply heartbreaking. Yet it’s a gentle reminder that love, like a houseplant, needs sunlight, space, and attention to grow. The Beatles may have stated that love is all you need, but a little patience, empathy, and open-mindedness serves to sweeten the pot.
Sometimes, love can seem like hate or annoyance. But sometimes, it can be a wonderful thing, something for which we all hope, to which we’re all entitled, and which all of us have the power to achieve. Like the stirring Frédéric Chopin piano pieces that forms the spine its soundtrack, Love is Strange is a dazzling portrait of the sense of wonder we experience when we find someone, and the sense of loss when we inevitably lose them.
Beautifully acted and bittersweet, Love is Strange is a prime piece of counter-programming – a warm, humane, resplendent romance to savour while the days are long. By the time it’s over, you remember the simple delight of walking through Greenwich Village in the spring, and you feel as if the people in it were friends you know well enough to tire of, and to miss terribly when they go away.
Love is Strange is told with artful economy, and ends with several achingly lovely and perfectly composed images caught in golden sunlight. It never feels anything less than authentic, like a true story shared by close friends. Fittingly, this tale of woe can be seen as a plea for a heightened sense of community. It takes a village to keep us all afloat. Here’s to lifelong commitment, for men and women, for artists and skaters, however strange love may be.