Shot by means of a moody, retro palette of peat tones - and shot through with writer-director James Gray's trademark talky sensibility - Two Lovers feels like a film lost and regained, a genuine rediscovery from the 1970s American indie archives. A screenplay this achingly real, full of moments and exchanges and glances directly drawn from our collective experience with loves and lovers lost and regained, I had not seen for a long time. Gray's fourth outing is again set in the Brooklyn neigbourhoods that defined his previous work. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a good-hearted but troubled young (ish) man has moved back in with his parents (played by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after a very long engagement that ended in heartbreak. He has also just come off a failed suicide attempt, with which the film begins. And it is an opener that comes to characterise what will play after: a surreal, ashen sky across which Leonard, filmed in slow motion, throws himself into the icy cold Hudson, just as a gull moves into frame. Two Lovers may précis like an average drama of romantic entanglements, but such keen visuality from the first frame assures us that its imagery will be anything but standard. Leonard is an aspiring photographer and Gray lenses his dilemma with this in centre-frame. His parents introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a businessman with whom Leonard's father hopes to embark on a partnership. At the same time, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a blonde goddess who is the antithesis of Sandra's familiar comfort. Gray, however, smartly opts not to cast Sandra as the physical antithesis of Michelle. She is just as beautiful. Leonard's choice is not a superficial one; it is one of future contentedness. For now, Michelle takes him to Manhattan clubs. He opens up in her presence. In these night scenes the edits may be more frenetic, but the city is lit like bruise: browns and beiges becoming purples and blacks. A sign of things to come. Gray, like fellow director of the night Michael Mann, knows that gleaming, urban compositions can carry immense emotional heft. Behind its classicist staging, Two Lovers invokes the intimate knowledge of the audience and returns them back to their own loneliness - and their past disappointments. If we know the inexorable coda to Gray's film, it is specifically because it is located in tragedy. His anti-hero will fail to escape his destiny. The film's final scene, which some have mistakenly misread as atonally optimistic, is in fact quite the opposite: a devastating gut-punch that throws us way off course into the credits. It reminds us that a romantic's toil is often in vain. It is sobering. And it is the reason why Two Lovers is first-rate work. Gray's screenplay still manages to surprise; a lone, honest voice in the Hollywood romantic drama genre. He is not making films like anyone else right now. And this is the apotheosis of his oeuvre so far. His leads also do some of their best work ever. Phoenix is excellent: his tightrope-subtle tread through emotional complexity should join the ranks of his Oscar-nominated Emperor Commodus and Johnny Cash. His physical transformation is just as compelling: the increasingly invested relationships with the two lovers of the film's title, carving out a handsomeness that had hitherto been buried under years and layers of self-consciousness. Paltrow is an equally outstanding sparring partner in neurosis. A capricious firecracker of issues and tissues, she sparks the picture alight from Leonard's (and our) first sighting of her on a balcony - a nice take on Juliet and ideal love, in what is a literate and classy, if slight, grown-up drama of great distinction.
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