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Two Lovers

Directed by James Gray
Certificate 15, 110 minutes

Two Lovers

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is damaged goods, suicidal on the rebound from a serious girlfriend's departure. His parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) try to set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the calm and focused daughter of the man with whom Leonard's father, who runs a dry cleaning company, is planning a business merger. Any marriage here would make sound, pragmatic sense. Leonard is open to Sandra's charms, but then runs into the decidedly flaky Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who resides on another floor of the apartment building in which he and his parents live and falls passionately head over heels. Michelle is confused over the married man she's seeing who may or may not leave his wife for her and seeks Leonard's advice. So now Leonard has two relationships going and life is becoming extremely complicated.

Gray's previous films are New York gangster/crime dramas (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night) noted for their depth of feeling for characters. Set in New York's Brighton Beach district, Two Lovers is a romantic drama made in a similar manner - there are no gun-wielding gangsters and no organised criminal activity, but the staging and shooting styles are commendably gritty. The emotionally messy sex scenes are charged with an all too rare, raw intensity: not that they are particularly explicit, they just feel authentic.

Joaquin Phoenix's extraordinary performance brilliantly conveys the full fragility of a person tossed this way and that by external forces. His achievement is matched by fellow cast members'. Shaw quietly personifies a safe port amidst the hurricane of Leonard's whirling emotional state, while Paltrow completely convinces as the indecisive lover caught between two men even as she magnetises both towards herself. Rosellini as his mother manages exactly the right balance between controlling matriarch and concerned parent. And one could go on.

It's salutary to consider that the material here could so easily have been made as another forgettable multiplex romantic comedy. Gray has instead, by eschewing the cops and robbers trappings of his earlier work, given us a strangely familiar portrait of ordinary human existence without obvious cinematic precedent. A quiet, gentle character study with a cry for help and a pathological savagery written all over its main protagonist, this is a masterfully understated and frequently dark work of genius. It's a little picture, unlikely to be massively hyped - or indeed on show in cinemas for that long -"'but I recommend you seek it out while you can.

Jeremy Clarke