Our Souls at Night
Director – Ritesh Batra
Cast – Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Matthias Schoenaerts
Rating – 4/5
It is possibly too early in his career to say, but there aren’t many filmmakers who display in their films the empathy Ritesh Batra does in his. And this empathy, this acute understanding of human behaviour, warts and all, could probably explain how Batra – an Indian – has set each of his three films in three different continents, yet never lost sight of the truth. The Lunchbox, his first feature, was a quintessential story of middle class India, while his second, The Sense of an Ending, hopped between two time periods in England. For this one, his third, Batra travels to America, and tells a tale as sleepy as the suburban town in which it’s set.
Our Souls at Night shares a lot in common with The Lunchbox – they’re both unlikely love stories, between two characters trying to grab a second chance at life, punctuated by moody silences and bursts of charm – but it has even more in common with the works of its writers. Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber are – if Aaron Sorkin were removed from the equation – two of my favourite screenwriters working today. But they’ve made their careers chronicling the love stories of awkward millennials – and not, as this film would suggest, those of lonely septuagenarians.
Which is why even though it features two very fine older actors – legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, still at the peak of their powers, reuniting as a screen couple after almost four decades – it is reminiscent of Neustadter and Weber’s previous movies – films like 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. And there lies its brilliance.
It begins in medias res – which is a fancy drama term for when a scene begins in the middle of action. It’s a writerly flourish, and nothing more, but like its cousin, the opening scene of The Social Network, it sucks you into the world of these characters, and leaves you with the feeling that the movie is always one step ahead of you.
The opening titles are barely over when…
Addie Moore comes knocking. She’s the girl next door – has been for decades. And one evening, perhaps after having spent years weighing the pros and cons of what she is contemplating doing, she rustles up some courage and arrives at Louis’ door. Now, Louis appears to be a creature of habit, and a man of few words – although it’s unclear if he has always been like this, or if years of loneliness have sucked his soul dry.
Either way, Addie’s positively scandalous proposition – that the two of them keep each other company at night, because it is always at night, old age has taught Addie, that she is most alone – utterly stumps Louis. So he blurts out the first concern that pops into his head: What will people say?
But he’s hardly in a position to turn her down. He is, as we learn a couple of scenes later, a slave to routine; he barely tolerates his friends, regrets – among other things – never having pursued the passions of his youth, and lives in a house clearly too large for one person – a subtle nod to his departed wife. So feeling slightly sheepish, he takes Addie up on her offer.
And together in bed, they bare their souls to each other, night after night after night. They’ve made mistakes – terrible mistakes, the both of them. But they’ve spent far too long beating themselves up about it. Life’s punished them hard enough. They just want to go out in peace.
And this is where Batra’s empathy as a filmmaker shines. He doesn’t judge Addie and Louis. And nor does his camera, which observes its subjects with the unassuming stillness of a psychiatrist. Often, several characters – sometimes even as many as five – populate the same frame. It’s a sign of tremendous confidence in the story (and the audience) when a director doesn’t feel the need to rely on suggestive camera movements, or ham-fisted editing.
The story does the heavy lifting.
When Addie’s grandson is dropped off at her doorstep by her son – played by the always sizzling Matthias Schoenaerts – it could easily have been seen as a lazy plot contrivance in a worse film. But here, it nudges the plot – which, in all fairness, could feel a tad too uneventful for impatient viewers (it’s not your fault, it’s just how we’re fed these days) – down exciting new avenues.
Our Souls at Night thrives in the minutiae of life – in the making of beds before their nightly meetings, the stirring of pots for a meal they’ve looked forward to all day, and the packing of bags for the first camping trip in years. There’s always the lingering feeling that the most important moments of Addie and Louis’ lives have already happened. This is merely a postscript.
It’s the perfect film for a lazy summer evening, or a rainy winter day – whatever floats your boat. Our Souls at Night is wistful, it’s warm, and it’s the rare chance to witness two monumental stars perform together.
Watch the trailer for Our Souls at Night here