Featuring: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writers: Christopher Hampton and Anne Fontaine from a story by Doris Lessing
Australian release date: Opens 21 November, Luna Palace, Perth
Verdict: Unintentionally comical
Lifelong friends Lil and Roz begin affairs with each other’s teenaged sons.The relationships continue over the years in secret, until the women try to choose an appropriate time to end them.
Did you read the blurb and wonder how a film with this storyline could be anything other than a complete turkey? I did. Could the filmmakers pull it off without making women who conduct affairs with each other’s teenage sons seem like total sleazes? With actors of the calibre of Naomi Watts and Robin Wright and the beauty of Xavier Samuel (The Loved Ones, Road Kill) and James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom) to realise the script (written by Christopher Hampton and Anne Fontaine from a story, The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing), I thought it was just possible, so I quelled my fears and fronted up.
Oh dear. Adoration is high-class soap. Great production values and uniformly good, occasionally superb, acting are let down by an awful script.
It’s all very Hollywood: beautiful, beautifully dressed, professional women living with their beautiful sons in beautiful houses in an idyllically beautiful beachside setting. When the story gets under way, the boys, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville), have finished school and are contemplating their futures. We’ve seen them as young boys in the establishing sequence of Ian’s dad’s funeral, and now, fresh out of school uniforms, they’re living the dream, surfing all day, and returning to one or the other’s home to dine with their lovely mothers. No summer jobs for these princes!
The mothers, Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts, who was also executive producer) admire their sons as mothers, and as women – especially Roz, who is shown watching Ian strip down his wetsuit and rinse off in the outdoor shower. So the first seduction, when Ian makes a pass at Roz, is believable, but the second is so clunky as to be ridiculous.
The revenge motive – Tom goes after Lil when he witnesses Roz departing Ian’s bedroom – is laughable, and indeed the irreverent Australian audience I watched with, bullshit antennae waving frantically, let loose with Precious Pup wheezes, incredulous giggles, and outright guffaws.
James Frecheville has certainly grown into a fine handsome young man, but while his impassive gaze was perfect for Animal Kingdom, here it lends a certain woodenness of style that makes the moves Tom puts on Lil, as well as his putative career as a stage director, utterly risible. Later we’re asked to believe that this youngster in his early twenties works around the country as an independent director. Ha!
While Tom goes off to drama school (where he meets his future wife), Ian stays up the coast and ends up working with his mother in what was possibly the family naval architecture business.
The women jointly decide the time has come to end the relationships when a girlfriend turns up at Tom’s 21st birthday party. Tom marries the girl, but Ian is devastated and falls into a revenge relationship with Hannah (Sophie Lowe). As you do. Transpires he’s trapped into marriage when Hannah becomes pregnant.
The question the film fails to answer is why the women, who were old enough to know better, behaved as they did. There’s precious little characterisation. What we know of them is that they have known each other all their lives. Some overt mention of their relationship being possibly lesbian (which gives rise to both a beautifully funny scene with a potential suitor for Lil, and also perhaps a cover for their actual relationships with the boys) suggests that they are sublimating their desire for each other, but the film doesn’t support this hypothesis. Rather, it seems that they have easy lives, some easy pleasure presents itself, and they think, why not?
An apple makes an appearance here and there, and never so awkwardly as at the dinner table one evening when one of the party cuts it into quarters, and they each take one, and hold it in their hands as if to say ‘We are all equal partners in this sin.’ More guffaws.
It’s a big ask to sympathise with any of them when they are behaving so stupidly. If there had been actual eroticism, maybe, but the camera doesn’t linger on the beautiful young men after establishing that they are just that; nor are the sex scenes at all titillating.
The cinematography is superb – it’s an easy film to watch – but it doesn’t allow the material to transcend the screenplay. Even if you can believe the initial situation, there’s a dreadful wait-there’s-more/steak-knives quality to the narrative that becomes simply comical.
Indeed, we’re probably not meant to sympathise, but in the absence of some kind of recognisable authorial tone, the chronological rendition of the narrative and its woefully inadequate dialogue evoke only shocked laughter. There’s a gaping absence of nuanced reflection on the events, or a consequence that felt real.
A final quibble: it’s always fun to judge an American actor dealing with the notoriously hard-to-do Australian accent, so I have to mention that Robin Wright makes a fair fist of it here. However, the odd lapse (eg: the flat American “can’t” and calling Roz’s husband Hair’ld) should have been explained by, say, a gap year in California.
And speaking of Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), his reappearance in the tale after being dispensed with early, now re-partnered and with a new son, is one of the highlights. The scene-stealing baby, looking back and forth from Dad to half-brother with an expression of alertness and growing dismay, could have been thinking “Who are you and what have you done with my family?” Or perhaps: “Dang! My first role and it’s in this schlocky stinker.”
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