Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.
Our content ratings (0-10):: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
In this moving drama the two consummate actors Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George a music teacher and choir director at a Catholic school and Ben a 71 year-old painter who have been living together in New York City for 39 years. Once the state recognizes gay marriages they decided to legalize their relationship, and after the civil ceremony are surrounded by admiring friends and family at the celebration in their spacious apartment. The gathering includes: Ben’s nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), and two gay policemen Roberto and Ted (Manny Perez and Cheyenne Jackson), referred to as “the policewomen.” In her wedding toast Kate says that long ago after Elliott introduced her to his uncle and George, she saw the love expressed between the two men so that their relationship served as the model for the kind of marriage she wanted for herself.
I know that the Song of Solomon was written about the love between a man and a woman, and that many believers would say that this is the only kind of marital love allowed by the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.Director Ira Sacks and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias argue otherwise in this bittersweet story, and to this reviewer the display of tender affection that George and Ben offer one another during a period of testing is convincing enough to lay aside the ancient taboos and regard the Scripture passage above as an apt description of George and Ben’s marriage.
Like other couples, the pair post pictures of their wedding and reception on Face Book. Big mistake. Someone sees it and points it out to the archbishop, who immediately orders the school to fire George. The head priest reluctantly delivers the news to George, despite the teacher’s long service and popularity with students, as well as the fact that he had always been open about his relationship with Ben. Ben states that he still believes that Christ is his savior, the only thing that conflicts with the contract he had signed being his gay life style. When the priest offers to pray with him, George responds, “I think I’d like to pray on my own.” The fact that George raises no howling protest or even thinks of going to the ACLU reveals much about his temperament and approach to life.
When they gather their friends and family to announce the bad news, someone jokes, “Are you guys getting divorced already?” But their plight is no laughing matter: unable any longer to afford their large apartment, the two must split up and move, Ben into the small apartment of Kate and Elliott’s over in Brooklyn, and George into that of the friendly cops on the floor below where the couch serves as his bed. Ben has the worst of the deal, having to share a tiny room and bunk bed with the teenaged Joey. Just entering those restless years when he needs both physical and emotional space, Joey does not hide his resentment at what he regards as an intrusion. The boy becomes upset when he and a friend are sometimes interrupted by his uncle coming in for something.
Kate is better at hiding her resentment: as a writer working on a new book she has one more distraction in the small apartment. The garrulous Ben likes to talk, forgetting that she needs undisturbed solitude for completing her novel. Also husband Elliott’s work as a video producer means that he is seldom hope, even at night, so everything falls on her.
George also has a difficult time, his two younger friends hosting boisterous parties at which the old man feels completely out of place. Neither their style of dancing nor their playing Game of Thrones is to his taste. When one guest talks with him late one night, the older man says that they are sitting on his bed.
Ben loves his family, and they love him, but in the teeming, bustling world of New York, privacy is allied with sanity, so all are suffering. He and George had always maintained a stream of chatty discourse, but now they see each other on a weekly rather than a daily basis. In a phone call to George, Ben says, “Sometimes when you live with people, you know them better than you care to.” There is a telling moment when Joey is carrying his skateboard down the stairs and he stops on the landing, tears running down his cheeks. He stands there, neither he nor the camera moving, until at last his sobs stops and he continues on.
The partners visit a housing office to see if they can obtain a subsidized place, but the clerk is not very encouraging. George tries to continue his painting, going up onto the roof. He convinces Joey’s best, and only, friend Vlad (Eric Tabach) to be his model, sketching in the boy posed against the Manhattan skyline. Not only is Joey upset that his great-uncle has lured his friend away from him, the parents, despite their liberalism, are also uneasy over their gay relative being alone with a boy. George chastises a young music student because her playing of Chopin lacks feeling, and when she gets it right the second time, he has to hide his tears, the music expressing the drama he is going through. There are generous snatches of Chopin on the soundtrack, and one scene of Ben and George playing and singing together on their piano is one of many examples of their joy in being together. Even their frequent bickering is a sign of their closeness.
Late one night George visits Ben and clings to him while weeping. At another time we see the two men enjoying a concert together and then discussing it at a restaurant. In a voice over with scenes of school life accompanying it George sums up well their pluck in a letter that he had sent to the parents after his firing, ”Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.”
The story ends in a bittersweet way, and the wordless denouement suggests the passing of one generation to the next. This ending, centering on Joey and his skateboard shows that this is not a film so much about a gay marriage as it is about the effect of that relationship upon those around the couple. The characters of Kate and Joey are well rounded out, with the focus after a sudden twist in the plot devolving upon the boy. The director and his co-writer refuse to denounce the Catholic Church, nor do their characters make a speech arguing for the acceptance of gay marriage. They let the events of the story speak for themselves. Thus this is a well-crafted film that will linger in your memory long after the end credits fade, reminding you, as the title indicates, that love does indeed come in strange forms.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October 2014 issue of Visual Parables.