'Our Souls at Night': Film Review | Venice 2017

An engaging family film and rom-com for the older generation.

Co-stars Jane Fonda and Robert Redford reunite as aging bedmates in an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s last novel presented by Netflix.

One day a widow knocks on the door of a widower she barely knows, though they have lived in the same small town in Colorado for what must be 70 years, and proposes they dispel their loneliness by sleeping together. Talk and companionship, not sex, is what she’s after. He takes a day to think it over. Then he accepts her proposal.

So begins, without further preamble, the romantic comedy Our Souls as Night, adapted from Kent Haruf’s quiet, deeply thoughtful final novel. It could have been made as a very different film for festival and art house audiences. Here the casting dominates the story, sacrificing some of the novel’s density and depth for the much wider appeal of reuniting Robert Redford and Jane Fonda onscreen since The Chase (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Electric Horseman (1979).

It’s fascinating as well as heartening to see that their chemistry and sex appeal are still intact as they circle 80, and one imagines this Netflix original film will prove irresistible to the older demographic. Premiering on the big screen in Venice, it made an appropriate, historic salute to the ageless pair who are being awarded twin Gold Lions for their career achievements.

Reservations aside, both Redford and Fonda are charming, delicate and convincing as Addie Moore and Louis Waters, the couple who find each other at the tail end of their lives. They are directed with sophistication and without a drop of melodrama or sentimentality by Ritesh Batra, who recently directed Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in a BBC adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel The Sense of an Ending.  Hanging onto the delicacy and restraint of Haruf’s novel, he sings the praises of the basic decency of ordinary American folk in search of a measure of happiness, even as they make choices that go against social norms and make tongues wag.

What will people say, after all, when they get wind of their unusual arrangement? Addie is articulate and daring; Louis is tongue-tied, formal and a bit boring, not as prepared as she is to make a leap into the unknown. The first night that he shows up at her house, he brings his PJs in a brown paper bag and discreetly comes round the back. That night their mutual nervousness isn’t very conducive to conversation or companionship, yet there is a delicious sense that these two weathered souls are boldly breaking a worthless taboo as they climb into Addie’s big bed together, in full night clothes. By the time Louis finally settles down to make a few remarks, she is already fast asleep.

Naturally, it doesn’t take long for word to spread around town. Bruce Dern plays an old geezer who is the ringleader of Louis’s coffee buddies. They come off as gossipy, ungenerous townsfolk, but maybe that’s mostly in Louis’ guilty mind.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine two better-matched people sharing pillow talk. She says she always thought of him as a good man — a judgment that not all the townspeople share when it comes out, on their third night together, that he once left his wife and daughter for a brief affair with a fellow teacher.

She is understanding, non-judgmental and wise. He tells her he has always thought of her as a person of character who kept her chin up after her husband died. She tells him, in tears, about a personal tragedy that has marked her life. Then, just as their relationship is sailing merrily along, Addie’s angry son Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts) drives up and announces his wife has run off, leaving him with their seven-year-old son.

Jamie (well sketched by young Iain Armitage) is a quiet boy glued to the games on his cell phone. (The fact that the oldsters don’t own these new-fangled contraptions is a bit unlikely, but becomes a plot point later on.) His stay with grandma while Gene tries to get his life together introduces the first real challenge to Addie and Louis’ arrangement, and their way around it is both sensible and amusing. The dynamics between the three characters is gently engaging rather than dramatic, and you can feel the energy shifting as rom-com is put on the back burner to family life, train sets, a new dog. Opening the film up beyond the sleepy neighborhood and the house on Cedar and 12th Street, Batra sends the trio on an idyllic camping trip in the Colorado mountains, beside a breath-taking river. Jamie and the dog in one tent. Addie and Louis in another.

When they get back, trouble is waiting in the shape of Gene. Schoenaerts brings deep-rooted resentment and brooding to the film’s sole dramatic role, creating some much-needed motivation for the final scenes and the choice Addie makes between Louis and her family. Given the lightness that has preceded it, the thoughtful ending feels like reality has brusquely broken in.

Wearing long, two-tone gray hair and a small-town wardrobe, Fonda is still trim and undeniably sexy, even while fixing breakfast in a pink housecoat. She brings a strong Western boldness to the daring Addie and a clear-headed, self-possessed wisdom that makes it clear why Louis is so interested in being with her.

For his part, Redford humbly mimes the typical movements of old age and the local mannerisms and speech, acting like any ordinary guy, though we know he's much more than that. His greater sensitivity compared to his gang of oldsters is revealed gradually, as he gently leads Addie and Jamie out of their loneliness.

D.P. Stephen Goldblatt’s warm lighting favors the stars, highlighting their hair, erasing lines, and creating a safe, cozy atmosphere for their feelings to grow and bloom. Jane Ann Stewart’s production design is beautifully expressive of small town America, while Elliot Goldenthal’s score is laid back and ultimately consoling.

A Netflix presentation of a Wildwood Enterprises, Wildgaze Films production
Cast: Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern, Matthias Schoenaerts, Iain Armitage, Judy Greer
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by Kent Haruf
Producers: Robert Redford, Finola Dwyer, Ted Sarandos, Erin Simms
Coroducer: Scott Robertson
Executive producer: Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bremner, Ben Ormand
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Jane Ann Stewart
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: John F. Lyons
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Casting director:Avy Kaufman
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
101 minutes