It’s perhaps unjust to damn a film for not exceeding expectations, for just being quite good and not a lot else, but Blue Valentine hits a strange middle ground. It comes at the height of the awards season, and standing alongside other expectant contenders it’s been pinned down as the ‘actors film’. A hard hitting relationship drama, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling doing some real emotional heavy-lifting, being brave and going where few other actors dare. And they do, and brilliantly so. But that’s about it.
The crux of the story is a splintered and disjointed tale, following the slow coming together of the unexpectant young parents Dean and Cindy. At the start they’re the very model of a dysfunction, a bouncing young five year old daughter delighting the man-child Dean, the burden of being a grown-up wearing thin on Cindy. The live in a big house, surrounded by beautiful long grass which the morning sun catches nicely. The camera likes staying tight on their faces, the many splinters between the couple writ-large on their every darting glance.
Having left the little Frankie with the gruff grandfather, Dean corrals Cindy into taking up a boozy weekend at a saucy novelty motel, to ‘rediscover that spark’ and find the woman he first fell in love with. A nasty passive-aggressive car drive later and the film takes off on an unclear flight towards rediscovering that love from it’s first instance. Unfulfilled prior relationships come and go, and unlikely re/encounters lead towards a beautifully smoldering kindling of love.
From the grating petulance of his older self earlier in the film Gosling goes into an unremitting charm offensive to win over the coy and reluctant Williams, and effortlessly woos the audience along with her. Having a front seat to an almost bottomless falling in love is a warm and fine thing indeed, and in spite of skirting dangerously close to a mobile phone advert [warm colours, du jour indie soundtrack, a stubbly stud wooing a round cheeked girl with A BLOODY UKELELE] of course you get carried along with it.
All the better having then reached the carefree heights of a love unbounded to the pull the chord towards a spiraling tail-spin of bleakness when the realities and hardships of life get, well, very REAL. Which is when the award-winning performances come to the fore, with the daring and brave sex scenes, the raw-like-onions emotional tussling and rending of hearts and wills. The performances are tremendous, make no mistake, and in their strongest (often drunken) moments the film brings to mind the fraught feelings and jangling genuine anger/love of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Yet despite its’ best efforts, Blue Valentine just hasn’t quite got the same painful edge.
To say it almost feels engineered to bait American critics is to paint the film as cynical. Which it isn’t, but by dint of it’s approach it manages to tick a slew of awards worthy boxes. Which isn’t to say it’s pedestrian either. It’s gripping, involving and tremendous in it’s way, but having long left the cinema the film just hasn’t stuck with me beyond the moment itself.
In isolation the constituent parts of the film: the acting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, are all superb and more than worthy of all the prizes and plaudits you care to heap on it. It’s just by some unholy logic that the sum of said parts don’t quite match that same standard.
Three out of Five
Blue Valentine is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 14th of January 2011.