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Film review: Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in 'The Lovers'

The Lovers

This is a touching, insightful, acerbic yet romantic comedy-drama by lesser-known writer/director Azazel Jacobs, involving a long-married couple, Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts). They have a comfortable but distant and passionless marriage, and both have outside relationships. Both of them are planning to tell the other about their respective lovers and initiate divorce proceedings, waiting only for the right time to broach the subject.

As they hesitate, putting matters off until after the upcoming visit from their son, they begin to show signs of dissatisfaction with their respective lovers, and of concern that they may be making the wrong decision. Michael finds himself in the ridiculous situation of lying to his exciting but over-dramatic mistress, Lucy (Melora Walters) in order to avoid seeing her and going home to his less taxing wife. Mary finds herself in much the same position with her lover, Robert (Aidan Gillen), but unwilling to face the fact, and making excuses to avoid him and stay home.

One morning, they both awaken and are appalled to find themselves embracing in their sleep. In spite of their shock, the contact seems to reawaken their attraction to one another, and they resume their sexual relationship after what is clearly implied to be a very long time. Both are astonished by their revived interest in one another, and they become like newlyweds, eager to stay in contact.

Their newfound closeness is complicated by their dual infidelity. Their respective lovers notice the change in them, the greater liveliness and happy state of mind. But the couples’ illicit meetings are curtailed by Mary and Michael’s greater interest in one another, and they find themselves neglecting their lovers, and making excuses to them, in order to be together. The pair find themselves in the odd position of deceiving a partner in adultery in order to sneak off and be with their spouse.The focus shifts for a time to Michael, who finds himself putting off his mistress, continuing to reassure her that his marriage is all but over and that they will soon be together. Letts is pitiful as the ambivalent Michael, unable to be sure what he wants, unable to make a decision to either give up Mary or make a clean break with Lucy. The story takes a turn when Michael finds out about Mary’s affair, forcing him to confront his own feelings and realise what he may be losing.

A new perspective is introduced when the couple’s son, Joel, comes to stay and to introduce his parents to his girlfriend. He is perplexed by what he sees as an unfamiliar atmosphere in his parents’ home, a change in what he had come to regard as an unemotional marriage of convenience, while the son’s warm relationship with his girlfriend gives Michael a feeling of poignancy and nostalgia. As the weekend visit continues, the obligation of both Michael and Mary to choose between their spouses and their lovers looms. The fear of returning to the same cold and unsatisfying marriage they once endured, of missing what might be a last chance at love and being left all but alone, is almost palpable during the weekend visit.

Things come to a head as both the spouses’ lovers choose the occasion of the son’s visit to reveal themselves and provoke a decision, at the same time son Joel decides to confront his parents about their “hypocritical” marriage. Mary and Michael, shocked by Joel’s revelations, are forced to recognise how much damage they have done, not only to each other, and that Joel may be right about their hypocrisy and cowardice. The painful and embarrassing mess leads them to finally make a choice, in an unexpected, comically cynical resolution.

This is an intimate, small-scale story that depends heavily on the two central actors to get across the characters’ changing emotions, their affection, their guilt, and their ambivalence and confusion. Fortunately, the great Debra Winger is more than equal to the task, and her co-star Tracy Letts is able to keep up with her. These key performances sustain the film through a few slow periods in the script and some slightly sentimental material. They express beautifully and with gentle humour the couple’s changing feelings, the joy of reconnection with a partner they had all but given up, and the uncertainty about what they want and what they ought to do. The long-married couple’s relationship becomes the central focus in this unusual, confidently presented anti-romance.