A glance across the room, a shy gesture leads to awkward silence. Then the orchestra quickly stirs in as eyes meet, staying low until the sudden rush of requited love makes us exhale and catch our breath anew. If the love story we’re watching is worth its salt, it sweeps us away in both the minor movements of the build-up and the consummated passion. Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers is that kind of breathless romance.
But it doesn’t come quite so simple – in fact, The Lovers turns the genre on its head like no other romance in recent memory. Michael and Mary (played exquisitely by Tracy Letts and Debra Winger), the lovers of the title, are already married. And seeing other people (Melora Walters and Aidan Gillen), who Michael and Mary have each promised to leave eachother for. It’s a one-two punch of love renewed and the forbidden of cheating on the ones who really hold their affection. Call it an extra-extra-marital affair.
Their (re)coupling is presented initially without the strains that have pulled the two away from one another, so for us it’s as if they are discovering eachother for the first time without their unspoken baggage. Jacobs catches every beat of their tentative flirtations without the film becoming labored or overly idiosyncratic. Their escape into eachother never feels less than honest, their charms both funny and quite sexy. The spark of the unexpected catches us as much as it does Michael and Mary.
But what makes the film so smart is how Jacobs ultimately shows the distinction between love, passion, and affection without sacrificing its swoony romanticism – or passing definitive judgment on any of the three romantic relationships, for that matter. The third act arrival of their son (Tyler Ross) is its most obvious device, but their is something purposeful in seeing the marrieds clutch to their rose-colored glasses against their complicated reality. Its outcome may not be the easiest or coziest or conclusive, but the film uplifts all the same.
Jacobs is graced with two brilliant leads in Letts and Winger. Both are aces together and individually, wordlessly conveying the ebb and flow of their trepidations and curiosities. It’s a delight to have Winger onscreen again and used to her full capacity, the texture of her voice and longing in her eyes as complex as ever. Tracy Letts is even more of a revelation, finally an alternative to the harsher stiffs we’ve seen him play onscreen. The actor is very moving in Michael’s inconsistencies, how his delusions clash with a sad self-awareness – it’s his best screen work to date.
Delicate but definitely not slight, The Lovers has great emotional intelligence in its portrayal of enduring and emerging love. For the film, within the harder truths of every relationship (regardless of whether the two stay together or not) there is still the capacity for the kind of swooning romance in the everyday – how much of it we need to survive is unanswered. The Lovers is tough, but wholly compassionate.