Written by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Australia and France, 2013
The struggle to maintain one’s personal sense of youth is at the heart of Adore, an Australian drama that wishes to be provocative without being particularly salacious or deep. Based on one of four short stories by Doris Lessing in the collection “The Grandmothers,” Adore feels very much like an adaptation of a story that’s too brief, a mere wisp that should be a gale force. Writer Christopher Hampton and director Anne Fontaine choose not to capitalize on the opportunity to further develop the quartet of leads at the heart of this scandalous, offering instead a pretty, shallow portrait of intense, worrying vanity.
Robin Wright and Naomi Watts play Roz and Lil, lifelong best friends who live comfortably in New South Wales. As the film opens, Lil’s husband has just died, and she’s coping as best she can with Roz at her side. Although Roz is tempted to leave her home for Sydney to be with her drama-lecturer husband (Ben Mendelsohn), she instead stays at her picturesque home, beginning a dalliance with Lil’s son Ian. Once Roz’s son, Tom, finds out, he heads over to Lil’s place, and the roundelay truly commences. Though the logline for Adore may promise something titillating and sensual, the film is laid-back, often to its detriment, rarely displaying much of a pulse.
The problem is simple: what should be a shocking small-town drama never coalesces into anything coherent or surprising. Perhaps it’s because Mendelsohn has proven so adept and squirrelly in dramas like The Place Beyond the Pines and Killing Them Softly, but any hopes that Roz’s husband Harold might catch wind of what his wife has been up to, even once their own relationship crumbles (within the first third of the film, to be clear), vanish quickly. Harold’s role is to be a kind of window dressing, much like Tom and Ian turn out to be. Too often, the shots of the frisky foursome are staged to be reminiscent of a Calvin Klein photoshoot, Ian’s shirt unbuttoned at just the right angle, Lil’s hair waving in the wind just so. Adore should be conflict-heavy—or it could be a truly wacky and twisted door-slamming farce (“Wait, you’re sleeping with my mother? I’m sleeping with your mother! Oy!”)—is content to just drift along, carefree.
Watts and Wright are both fine, though it should come as no surprise that these two fiercely talented performers are eminently watchable in even the most forgettable of stories. Despite their solid work, it’s hard to ever truly understand Roz and Lil’s choices outside of surface motivations. Both of their sons are blandly good-looking, so it’s not jaw-dropping that either would give into temptation. (Conversely, Roz and Lil are both charming, beautiful women; Tom and Ian falling for them is perfectly logical.) But the relationships, as depicted, never transcend carnal pleasures, yet the characters act as if they’re in the midst of grand, epic love affairs. Seeing as Adore is perfectly happy to hop and skip through chronology—the film covers probably close to 10 years in these characters’ lives, not counting an opening scene of Roz and Lil as little girls—it’s extraordinarily difficult to latch onto the people on screen as more than pretty-looking ciphers.
As such, outside of Watts and Wright, the only performer worth noting is Mendelsohn, who resembles a thinner Sam Elliott at times. (Though, again, it would’ve been nice to see some of the rage he’s displayed in past roles shine through.) Xavier Samuel and James Frechette, as Ian and Tom, respectively, do adequately well; however, the lack of any depth or development of their characters is really troubling. Tom, early on, is doubtful about following in his father’s career path, something we learn because he says as much. That’s all there is to him (or Ian, for that matter): if he doesn’t say it, it’s not a part of his psyche.
The notion of recapturing one’s youth has become ever-present in the 21st century, as is the concept of the sexually voracious “cougar,” both of which are the driving forces behind the main characters in Adore. The movie has a potentially captivating concept, in which what amounts to a summer fling turns into something serious and all-encompassing. The execution of that concept is mostly flat, outside of some lush cinematography and a hypnotic score. Even if the lead male characters were played by more experienced actors, they’d still be, as written, vapid and nearly soulless. The same goes for Roz and Lil, but with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as their avatars, they’re only slightly less vexing and baffling. Adore wants to provoke, but lacks the energy to raise even an eyebrow.
— Josh Spiegel