Sunday 6 February 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

A study of the ups and mostly downs of a couple, Blue Valentine is a bleak relationship study, not helped by the generally unappealing two main characters. Ryan Gosling as Dean and Michelle Williams as Cindy give terrific performances; but Dean and Cindy don't do much to endear themselves.

Blue Valentine is set in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania working class neighbourhoods, and switches between scenes of the present with the marriage is falling apart, and the past when Dean and Cindy met. As a young man Dean is not doing much to improve his lot in life. He appears to have charm and musical talent, but he never finishes high school and settles for a job with a moving company. There is barely a backstory to round out his character and personality.

We know a bit more about Cindy. Despite a loveless household and a short-tempered, verbally-abusive father, she has aspirations to become a doctor, but she's also not helping her cause: sexually active at 13; 20 or more partners as a young woman; and a jerk of a boyfriend. She meets Dean, and is soon pregnant. It's never clear if Dean is the dad, but he marries her anyway.

A few years later Cindy and Dean are struggling through a marriage without joy. Living in a rural, isolated setting, Dean never stops drinking and smoking, and his job as a painter means that his clothes and skin are perpetually paint-stained. Cindy is an ultrasound technician, commuting two hours each way to her job at a small clinic. They are both good to their young daughter Frankie, but she seems to be the only common bond. The sudden added stress of the family dog getting lost and killed does not help, and an ill-conceived supposedly romantic getaway at a sordid motel pushes the relationship over the edge.

Director Derek Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the script, maintains a low-key, close to documentary style, and despite the simmering tension he keeps most of the emotional histrionics almost in control. Gosling and Williams are absorbing, and despite the questionable choices made by Dean and Cindy, the performances generate lasting empathy.

Ultimately Blue Valentine has too few moments that anchor the relationship. Early in their courtship they share a magical moment with Dean playing a toy guitar while Cindy dances on the street; and there is another bonding experience at an abortion clinic. Otherwise, the film wallows in a lot of dark clouds with too few silver linings. Without a strong foundation, it is no surprise that a marriage will crumble, and Cindy and Dean ultimately face the reality that their union best resembles a house of cards.

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