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Zettel Film Reviews » Nights In Rodanthe – the love story – toughest genre in movies

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Nights In Rodanthe – the love story – toughest genre in movies

Dr. Paul Flanner and Adrienne Willis

Dr. Paul Flanner and Adrienne Willis

Nights In Rodanthe – George C Wolfe

Women aren’t romantic. That’s why they love romantic men. Women are far too sensible to believe either that love ‘conquers all’, or is “all you need.” It’s genetic and evolutionary: being responsible for bearing, giving birth, protecting, nurturing and raising the children of the next generation, gives women an inescapable sense of responsibility and imposed priority that roots them to place and personal commitment in a way that men can seldom match and always chafe at. Females choose mates. The lioness is fiercer than the lion.

Dictionary definitions of ‘romance’ are almost internally contradictory: what connection is there between: ‘a prevailing sense of wonder or mystery surrounding the mutual attraction in a love affair’ and ‘sentimental or idealised love characterised by a detachment from reality.’

Nights In Rodanthe is a virtual clone. It certainly falls under the second of the above definitions. This is characteristic of Nichols Sparks’ books at least two others of which have been made into films, The Notebook and Message in a Bottle. I enjoyed both but there is no film I have had so many arguments about than the one of which Nights In Rodanthe is a clone – Message in a Bottle. Contrasting the two may perhaps bring out interesting issues not just about these two movies but the very difficult genre of the straight (in the non-sexual sense) Love Story. A difficult genre, perhaps the most difficult in some ways, because if the characters don’t work, the relationship lacks credibility and therefore the only emotional force to drive the movie – the power of their love and passion for one another – fails. Without credible characters and real chemistry between the actors, there simply is no movie. Bad love story movies really suck. There’s nothing else to watch.

Although there is a common, almost ‘Mills and Boon-ish’ thematic thread to all of Sparks’ novels, there is a sincerity and true belief in the tenderness and respect for the love that men and women can feel for one another even when placed in mostly melodramatic situations. William Goldman once said (Which Lie Did I Tell?) that a film Director cannot be true to a book; indeed he must not try because of the profound difference between the mediums – but he must always be true to the spirit of the book. One senses the spirit of a genuine belief in the possibilities of deep love between men and women in Sparks’ books but the hackneyed plots and stereotypical themes tend to undermine that spirit.

It is my argument that Nights In Rodanthe falls into all the traps above to become trite and sentimentalised despite some good playing, especially from Diane Lane. But with Message In A Bottle and I haven’t found anyone yet to agree with me, Director Luis Mandoki through superiority in every aspect of the film-makers art, took the spirit of respect and tenderness that motivates Sparks’ writing and made them play.

Gerald di Pego’s screenplay for MIAB in contrast to Anne Peacock and John Romano’s for NIR, was superb – lean, reticent and at times genuinely poetic. Gabriel Jared’s score, though undoubtedly romantic did not backdrop very emotional scene in the film in the way that Jeanine Tessori’s does. (Though the re-discovery of Dinah Washington and Brook Benton is very welcome). Though both are set in the fishing communities of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Richard Gere’s Dr Paul Flanner and Diane Lane’s just-betrayed mother of two Adrienne Willis are outsiders to the area. They are drawn together when Gere, on his way to see his estranged doctor-son Mark working with the poor in South America, comes to talk with the husband of a patient who died during routine cosmetic surgery. He meets Adrienne who is helping out a friend Jean (Viola Davis) by standing in running an impossibly beautiful old wooden-built hotel whose supporting legs are buried in the sand and covered by the incoming tide. An attractive man and a beautiful woman thrown together all alone in a setting so breathtaking even the most diehard city-dweller could not fail to be moved by it. Throw in an atmospheric tropical storm/hurricane, lashings of guilt for dedicated Dr Flanner at the unexpected loss of a patient during routine surgery; and the emotional rawness of loyal but betrayed wife. Wolfe via Sparks seems to me to have knocked up (if you’ll forgive the expression) a romantic pudding with a few too many eggs.

Only the playing rescues this from disaster. Gere is sort of OK but suffers from the current what we might call ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ problem of older actors bedding younger co-stars – “dignity, always, dignity.” Ben Kingsley has a terrible bout of it in the current Elegy and you can see it preys a bit on Gere’s mind too. A bit like getting on the dance floor past 50, there is a terror of not appearing credible or seemly in love scenes with younger actresses. As if overt passion and healthy lust will look somehow ridiculous. I understand, I’m occupying the same terrain – but it’s weird – if you just think of the 60 year-old man being French or Italian, then the concerns and uncertainties disappear in a flash – if you will again forgive the expression. Diane Lane is excellent but has to mug her way through some scenes and lines to hide their banality. The cinematography is chocolate-boxy, like putting loads of slap on a naturally beautiful woman; and the editing is pedestrian at best, conveying little sense of pace or excitement.

In contrast, In MIAB you feel a genuine sense of the coast community to which boat-builder Garret Blake (Kevin Costner) and his ex-alcoholic father (a magnificent Paul Newman) belong. A man rooted in his sense of place, the sea, and in his ongoing love for his dead wife. A man she describes in one of her found messages as “a person like me of the outer banks and the blue Atlantic mystery.” Costner and Robin Wright Penn have an advantage over Gere and Lane – Garret and Newspaper researcher Theresa enter situations that make sense and we see an intelligent, beautiful, but also recently betrayed woman gravitate towards the gruff, inward, self-contained man, lost and emotionally raw to a world defined by the absence of his much loved wife. Just as in say Lost In Translation, we see these two people nervous and vulnerable, wary of further hurt, get to know each other. And when they do make love it is a matter of mutual decision, clear choice, the point where their feelings for one another are so strong there is no other possible way that they can be adequately expressed. In NIR Paul and Adrienne sort of drift into bed very early on courtesy of a hurricane. The relationship between Garret and Theresa, builds, it develops; that between Paul and Adrienne sort of happens because that where the plot is up to.

Mandoki uses music to create a sense of pace with a soundtrack worth buying for itself that cuts and links scenes with pace and style. The critical difference between NIR and MIAB is that in NIR the plot drives the characters: in MIAB the characters are given space to breathe and develop; there is reticence and sensitivity in their treatment that fits a grieving one-woman man and a strong, independent, intelligent woman who loves deeply but not often and never lightly.

These comparisons press themselves on us because Wolfe simply rips off whole sequences from MIAB, sometimes changing them – very much for the worse. The stills from the two films are extraordinarily similar. There is a scene in both where the guy says goodbye and leaves in his car that is played almost identically up to the point where Wolfe robs the scene of all the depth of emotion Mandoki creates with a patronising cop-out shot. There is a scene in both movies where each couple connect through being silly and playing the fool. In NIR being drunk sets up the scene which is used as a way to bring the two together: in MIAB the scene is simply the expression of the relaxed intimacy and trust the pair have surprised themselves in achieving so quickly. In both movies voiced-over ‘letters’ are used to convey the depth of feeling that lasts despite being separate. These letters in NIR are trite and banal; those in MIAB are beautiful, poetic and deeply moving. These were not Sparks’ letters, they were Di Pego’s, refining distilling the emotion into a poetic form. This tangible connection gives a later betrayal meaning and power. Everything in NIR is saying “cut to the chase” “cut to the chase”. The emotional drive in NIR is ‘let’s get them to bed together’; the emotional drive of MIAB is that when they make love – to give it depth, we must know these two people as they must know each other. And in my view we do.

Message In A Bottle for me is one of the very best straight love story films I know despite its parallel perhaps predictable themes and tragedies with Nights In Rodanthe. Mandoki makes Sparks’ lovers come alive and play: Wolfe copies Mandoki time and again outrageously stealing scenes and then messing them up. Nights in Rodanthe makes a reasonable night out at the movies. Alternatively, get in a good bottle of wine, make her a surprise meal, get Message In A Bottle out on DVD and snuggle down to watch two adults meet, get to know each other, overcome with wit, style and depth of feeling the problems they face; and each become the only other on earth.

That’s what I call romantic. As in – ‘a prevailing sense of wonder or mystery surrounding the mutual attraction in a love affair.’

(October 2008)

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