Two Lovers opens with a bleak introduction to the stark and isolated world that Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is emotionally occupying. He is a lone figure shambling along a pier against the background of bleak grey sky. We soon learn that he is a depressed and near suicidal man in his 30s who is currently living with his parents in Brooklyn after having had his heart badly broken. However, things are about to turn for Leonard as almost at once he meets two women, both of whom seem interested in him. However, while it is clear to the audience which of the two women Leonard should focus his attentions on, he instead pursues the other one.
This is the third time that director/writer James Gray has worked with Phoenix as the pair previously collaborated on the crime drama/thrillers The Yards and We Own the Night. However, Two Lovers is a career best for both men. Phoenix has stated that in order to pursue his music career this will be his last role as actor and if that were the case then this is an extraordinarily strong role to finish his career on. He gives a completely natural performance as this slightly troubled and slightly withdrawn man who is massively flawed and foolish in love, yet absolutely likeable and identifiable.
Phoenix is not the only performer to excel in this film as Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, The Hills Have Eyes) are also stunning as Leonard’s two lovers. In fact, this is the best work Paltrow has done since The Royal Tenenbaums. Moni Moshonov (We Own the Night) and Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) are also outstanding as Leonard’s parents and many of the best scenes from Two Lovers are the subtle and observational scenes depicting the gentle dynamics of his family.
Grey clearly has a deep affection for the Brooklyn working-class, Russian Jewish neighbourhoods because the rhythm, sounds and energy of the urban settings depicted in Two Lovers just resonates off the screen. The sense of place in this film is quite extraordinary. The superb cinematography perfectly frames the space of each scene, the actors inhabit that space with total authority – they absolutely belong there – and the sound design subtly conveys the ambient sounds of the Brooklyn streets. Leonard’s apartment block, a nightclub, an upmarket restaurant, a building rooftop on a cold morning and even a subway train are rendered in a way that feels both larger than life and yet completely natural. It is a remarkable achievement.
Two Lovers is a refreshingly mature examination of how crazy people can behave when they fall in love. Even though at times you want to climb into the screen and scream at Leonard for being blind, stupid and inconsiderate, his behaviour is completely recognisable and for many, identifiable. The tension in Two Lovers is often unbearable especially as the film builds to its conclusion, which will generate plenty of post-viewing debate. On the surface Two Lovers may not present itself as anything more than a superior drama about the difficulties of negotiating matters of the heart but this is an extraordinarily well crafted film that is utterly compelling right up until the moment that the final credits roll.