Fittingly for a story about a long-term couple in the process of changing partners, there’s an intriguing and eclectic mix of the old and the new in Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers. Its style is old fashioned romantic moviemaking, but its story is anything but, an original, empathetic tale of infidelity and its associated regret, happiness, and thrill in an uncommonly well drawn older couple. It serves as a great showcase for Tracy Letts and the always underutilised Debra Winger, and though it is slight, its an entertaining and insightful study of desire and longing in the over 50s, so often shied away from.
Mary and Michael (Winger and Letts) are a long-married couple, whose home life is perfectly civil, but utterly lacking in any real intimacy, emotional or physical. They each find this in their younger, very high strung lovers, author Robert (Aidan Gillen) for Mary, and ballet teacher Lucy (Melora Walters) for Michael, but as these new relationships become old again, the lead couple’s romantic restlessness drives them into another change. After an unexpected workday morning tryst, Mary and Michael find themselves irresistibly back in each other’s arms, and thus begins a story of a married couple effectively cheating on their lovers with each other.
This makes up the bulk of the second act, by far the strongest stretch of the film, witty and sharp and terrifically acted. It’s rare that two actors of this age, particularly a woman, get roles such as these, complex and with three dimensional wants and needs, and Winger and Letts repay the favour with mightily watchable performances. They’re both very funny, and watching the fire come back into their eyes as relearn the joys of one another’s company is one of The Lovers’ primary joys, even if the film as a whole is too light to land any considerable emotional blows.
This doesn’t prove a problem until the last act and the introduction of Mary and Michael’s snotty son Joel (Tyler Ross) when he comes home from college. In a big confrontation between Joel and his unfaithful parents, The Lovers makes a grab for genuine pathos, but cannot reach the target. Ross’s performance is unconfident and flat, so Joel is never sympathetic, so his disrupting of the story’s gentle progress is just annoying, rather than feeling like a narrative breakthrough. Similarly, while Gillen gets good mileage out of his character, Lucy is less well written, churlish and whiny in a way that makes it impossible to imagine Michael leaving Mary for her.
The swooning, sometimes overpowering score, lends a ‘40s or ‘50s romance vibe to proceedings, which doesn’t always work but does make sure that The Lovers is uniquely grand for a film this size. It’s small and slight with some glaring flaws, but at just 90 minutes, it doesn’t overstretch itself, and in the end, great acting and a story that we need to see more often save the day.