A couple of years ago Blue is the Warmest Color was touted as one of the year's best films and perhaps the best portrayal of a homosexual relationship ever captured on screen. And it was indeed very good, but Ira Sachs' moving drama Keep the Lights On reached emotional depths 'Blue' couldn't touch, and fortunately the film was met with great acclaim on the international and art house circuit. Sachs is at it again with a more overtly topical film in Love is Strange, a heartbreaking and tender look at a gay couple whose lives are torn apart by a simple act of love.
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are better than they've ever been as George and Ben, who have been together nearly forty years living a simple and comfortable New York existence. When a law passes and they can finally get married they jump at the chance. The film begins on the day they tie the knot and quickly establishes who these two are, and immediately we feel comfortable with them. George prefers to deal with things head on, while Ben is older and thus reserved in his thinking. The ceremony goes off without a hitch, but when George returns to his job as a Catholic school music teacher, the archdiocese fires him because gay marriage conflicts with their beliefs. The "morality clause" he signed apparently doesn't apply to his employers, but that's the honest reality for anyone of the LGBT community working nowadays when one can be fired over sexual preference.
To Sachs' and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias' credit they don't turn Love is Strange into a heavy activist drama full of obvious messages about inequality. Their approach is understated and subtle, a beautiful and tragic look at lovers whose twilight of happiness was ripped away from them. In rapid succession they are forced to sell their cozy little home, pleading with friends and family for a place to stay. George goes to live with young-ish cop friends a floor below, while retiree Ben shacks up with a nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan) who isn't fond of the arrangement at all.
Tragic though their current predicament may be, what is truly upsetting is watching these two men, who probably never saw a future where they'd be allowed to marry, suddenly forced to be apart. They've been together so long, more than half their lives, that being without the other is devastating. George and Ben are so used to being comfortable in their own little world that being with others can only lead to conflict. George can't connect with his new, partying roommates; while Ben's chattiness and constant presence upsets Kate to no end. There are no big fireworks or shouting matches, Sachs has always preferred a minimum of melodrama and it works to the strength of his cast. Molina and Lithgow give wonderfully lived-in performances, adding unexpected layers that keep unfolding as the story grows more complicated. That
Sachs is able to put so much into a 94 minute film is extraordinary, although he rushes through some of the most touching moments to get there. We never experience much of George and Ben's downward slide after the firing, and a subplot involving Joey's mysterious anger towards the latter doesn't get nearly enough time for the emotional payoff Sachs was hoping for.
Sachs doesn't turn Love is Strange into a raging commentary but he doesn't really have to. By focusing on one deeply intimate story of a marriage tarnished by pain and prejudice Sachs has made the clearest case that all love should be equal.