Hugh Grant once told us that “love, actually, is all around”. He should know, after all he has forged a career playing bumbling British gents pining after the proverbial one true love. And yet none of his films, or indeed any film that involves chasing the man/woman of your dreams to an airport, is infused with any real knowledge about the concept of true romance.
In stark contrast, Ira Sachs’ soft and subtle paean on the power of love abandons theatricality and cliché in favour of something far more nuanced and natural. With the effortless allure of the New York backdrop compounded with the calm unassuming keys of the Chopin score, Love Is Strange is a film that you’ll fall for at first sight.
Sachs’ superbly crafted script, co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, does have a narrative, but it’s a very minor cog in a much larger machine. Ben and George (John Lithgow & Alfred Molina) are a recently married, same-sex couple living in New York. When George looses his teaching post at a Catholic School because of his sexuality, the pair are forced to sell their apartment and live separately with local friends and family.
The writer/director certainly makes his thoughts on the trails and tribulations of the Real-Estate market plain to see, but his film is altogether richer. For Sachs, this narrative is simply a platform from which to tell a story about people. What he’s created is something almost entirely unique, a true tale about love in its purist form.
Much of the power comes from the beautifully natural performances that instil the film with heart and warmth. The ever-reliable Marisa Tomei adds depth as the mother trying to accustomize herself to her guest’s constant presence by being a polite hostess, while worrying about her temperamental teenage son. And Charlie Tahan, who plays said son, will make you both laugh and cry as he tries to adjust to the new living arrangements (which involves sharing his bunk bed with Ben) while trying to fit in at school and figure out his place in the world.
The beating heart of the film however, comes for the tender tale of the two leads. Debatably, both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have never been better; kindly, loveable, and ingrained with an unbreakable connection that’s developed from spending so many years together. Each actor finds gentle laughs in the early transition stages, Sachs imbuing the film’s greyer tones with great rays of sunshine. But as the pair’s separation continues, the laughter begins to die away. What’s left is a glistening reflection of the pain and vulnerability felt when two people with such a burning desire to be with one another are forced to live apart.
Sachs’ study of the aching discomfort caused by such distance is poignant and profound. The sullen expression of Molina’s George as he sits totally alone despite being surrounded by people speaks louder than words ever could. The quiet happiness of the moments when they’re finally reunited wrapping around you like a prolonged hug from your favourite person, be they a lover or a friend.
The greatest achievement of Sachs’ film however, is that it manages to tell a tale that involves a homosexual relationship without any grandstanding and self-congratulations. That is has bizarrely been given an R-rating in America speaks volumes as to the homophobic tendencies still rife within modern society. And yet in the film their orientation is never given a second thought. It’s simply treated as a sign of love; something that’s wonderful, natural, and yes, as Hugh Grant pointed out, all around.