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D: Arie Posin / 92m

Cast: Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams, Jess Weixler, Amy Brenneman

What if you had the chance to relive the love you once had but lost? What if Fate afforded you the opportunity to continue living the romantic life you’d taken for granted? And what if that romantic life, or a newer version of it at least, wasn’t intrinsically healthy, but you had to embrace it, or lose more of yourself than you could ever realise? What would you do? Would you still try for happiness under those circumstances, or would you take a step back, avoid committing yourself, let Life take you in another direction? Or would the mere contemplation of taking a different, more appropriate path, persuade you to try for that renewed happiness? And if you did commit yourself to revisiting a once treasured relationship, how would that decision make you feel, and what would be the emotional toll of such a decision?

These are all questions asked by The Face of Love, a romantic drama that centres around the grief experienced by Nikki Lostrom (Bening) after the death of her husband, Garret (Harris), after thirty years of marriage. Five years on from his unexpected death from drowning while on holiday in Mexico, Nikki is still grieving, still devoted to his memory, still living in the house he built for her, and still wishing he was alive. She has become resigned to being on her own; the only “man” in her life is an old friend of Garret’s called Roger (Williams) who uses her pool (Garret used to swim, and Roger’s using their pool is another way of retaining a connection with her late husband). A random trip to an art gallery she and Garret used to visit leads to a fateful discovery: a man (Harris) who looks exactly like Garret, sitting on a bench. Nikki is shocked, but mostly energised by the possibility that he might serve as a replacement for Garret, a döppelganger she can pretend is her dead husband come back to life.

She discovers the man’s name is Tom Young, and that he’s an art professor at a local college. An attempt to enrol in one of his classes backfires, partly because it’s already halfway through the semester, and partly because she becomes overwhelmed. But she engineers another “chance” meeting, and she hires Tom as a private art tutor. From there they begin a relationship, one that becomes more and more serious, and one that she hides from Roger, and her daughter, Summer (Weixler). She also hides the truth about Tom’s uncanny resemblance to Garret, knowing instinctively that no one else will understand the need she has to keep him in her life. As time goes on, Tom falls in love with Nikki, while her obsession with Garret threatens to undermine the love she feels for Tom. As she strives – and fails – to keep her relationship with Tom from developing into a full-blown obsession, Summer meets Tom accidentally and doesn’t react well to his presence, while a trip to Mexico doesn’t go as Nikki planned either…

When it comes to depicting grief, the movies tend to go for big, emotionally devastating scenes that are constructed with the express desire of wringing out the audience and leaving them feeling hollow inside – in a good way, of course. Pixar took this idea to the nth degree with the opening montage in Up (2009), a sequence so perfectly judged and executed that it can instil tears no matter how many times you see it. But Arie Posin’s second feature after the quirky, indie-flavoured The Chumscrubber (2005), isn’t interested in grand emotional gestures but quietly devastating ones instead. Nikki’s grief is compounded by her inability to deal with being a widow, and the gloomy knowledge that she is on her own again after thirty years. She works, she potters around at home, she does her best to support her daughter who has her own relationship issues, but still she lacks purpose. She trades on her memories to keep her going, and every day is the same: another day where she misses Garret fiercely.

Posin and co-screenwriter Matthew McDuffie are keen to show the dilemma that Nikki faces when she sees Tom for the first time. Her initial shock soon gives way to desire, a physical craving to have Garret’s double in her life, to give her back the purpose she lacks, and to allow herself to feel whole once more. Nikki experiences a number of complex, emotional reactions to the possibility of spending more time with “Garret”, and as her desire descends slowly into obsession (at one point it becomes clear she’d rather have Tom in her life than her own daughter), the viewer is forced to watch Nikki deny her own grief and clutch at the hope of a relationship she knows in her heart can’t last. She’s both aware of, and in denial of, the feelings that are trapping her in an ever increasing spiral of deceit. With all this emotional upheaval going on it’s a good job that Bening was chosen for the role, as she is nothing short of incredible, making Nikki both horrifying and sympathetic at the same time, a monstrous figure borne of overwhelming selfishness and unseemly desire.

It’s not too far off to say that Nikki is psychologically abusive, to herself and to Tom, and the script effectively explores the nature of that abuse and its effect on everyone concerned. Harris is solid and dependable as Tom, and more ebullient as the Garret we see in flashbacks. As he becomes more and more suspicious of Nikki’s need for him, we witness Tom’s own vulnerability from being alone, and the personal importance his romance with Nikki takes on. But while the central relationship builds on an achingly effective sense of co-dependency, elsewhere the narrative isn’t as confident or compelling. Secondary characters such as Williams’ romantically hopeful friend, and Weixler’s bright but narratively redundant daughter are given short shrift by the script and pop up only when said script remembers to include them (though not always in a way that advances the story or plot). Posin the director concentrates on Nikki almost to the exclusion of everything else, and while this does allow Bening to give another of her exemplary performances, it doesn’t help that many scenes look and feel contrived, and the narrative suffers any time Nikki avoids telling Tom the truth about why she’s seeing him. Posin never really finds a solution for these problems, and they end up harming the movie, making it seem unnecessarily superficial in places, and yet far more successful as a study in the mechanics of obsessive need. A detailed, somewhat complex movie then, but undermined by its clumsy structure and random attempts to broaden the narrative.

Rating: 7/10 – Bening is the main attraction here, riveting and plausible in equal measure, and giving The Face of Love such a boost it’s hard to envision the movie without her; narrative problems aside, this is still a movie that packs an emotional wallop in places, and which shows that romantic dramas aren’t exclusively the domain of twentysomethings or disaffected teenagers. (23/31)