We’ll be honest from sentence one. “Adore” hits two spots we love: movies for adults and (not-dumb) movies for and about women. We have our brief affairs with explosions, spit-take-inducing dialogue and car chases, but we have a long-term relationship with movies that are quiet and mature. They get bonus points if they feature strong female relationships. Okay, and hot dudes. But for all its efforts for seriousness, “Adore” never quite reaches true art, despite gorgeous cinematography and some fine work from its cast.
Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) have been friends since childhood, with their bond only growing stronger over the decades. Growing up as neighbors, the women become even closer as each raises a son within a stone’s throw of the other’s home and a beautiful beach on the Australian coast. Roz’s son Tom (James Frecheville, “Animal Kingdom”) and Lil’s son Ian (Xavier Samuel, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”) become nearly as close as they’ve come of age, creating a feeling of both awkwardness and odd inevitability when Ian kisses Roz. Rather than running, Roz responds in kind. When her son, Tom, sees her walking out of his best friend’s room in the middle of the night, he takes an action that wouldn’t have likely been our first response: he seduces Lil. There are hands wrung and punches thrown, but there’s surprisingly little debate over “right” and “wrong.” Instead, the two couples proceed with their romances with far less comment than when we brought home that date with a nose ring.
Frecheville plays Tom’s lightness with seeming ease, while Samuel seems perfect for Ian’s constant brooding and melancholy. We’re also always happy to see Ben Mendelsohn in any film, though his role as Roz’s husband early in the film is far too short. Unsurprisingly, the film’s focus and its best work comes from Watts and Wright. They ably play two halves of a whole, with particularly good work from Wright. The script from Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”) isn’t quiet up to the talent’s level, particularly the dialogue that could have used more than a bit of polish.
“Adore” is a proudly feminist film, with both its pedigree and its themes allowing additional opportunities for women. Based on a story by Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, the film is the English-language debut of French filmmaker Anne Fontaine. There’s been so much made of the male gaze in cinema, but Fontaine’s film and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne’s camera unabashedly celebrate the bodies of Samuel’s Ian and Frecheville’s Tom. As much as the cinematography focuses on the photogenic landscape of the Australian coast, it lingers even more on the young bodies of its male stars. “They’re beautiful,” says Roz, echoing the audience’s thoughts. “They’re like young gods.”
Meanwhile, Wright and Watts get their fair share of admiring screentime, celebrating that beauty isn’t relegated only to teenage girls. Beyond the focus on the physical, the film also champions a feminist aesthetic. There’s no prescribed path for Roz and Lil; or if there is, it isn’t the path that either takes. They challenge the traditional roles of wives and mothers, often placing their own happiness as well as their singular bond ahead of what society wants from them. At times, “Adore” feels like a fairy tale in its matter-of-fact approach to the out-of-the-ordinary situation. There are certainly elements of straight female fantasy, like romancing a young god two decades your junior, living an idyllic life in a beach house and having perfect skin in your 40s.
However, for a story with so much feeling, there’s surprisingly little emotional resonance in “Adore.” There’s heat and passion enough to make the innocent blush. We were struck by the beauty, both of the setting as well as the characters (we would gladly trade Nicolas Winding Refn retiring from film in exchange for Wright’s beauty secrets), but we didn’t connect with the characters. We weren’t sure where this film—that at times feels like a classical tragedy—would ultimately take its characters, but we also didn’t really care. By treating its central issue as a relative non-issue, “Adore” works to distance itself from its audience. We wanted to care far more than we actually did. [B-]