Unhappy Valentine

A FILM about love, sacrifice and commitment that’s every bit as sombre as the title suggests, Blue Valentine (US/16/116 mins) stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy, a blue-collar married couple struggling to keep their marriage together even as they drift apart.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance has crafted a clever tale, splicing Dean and Cindy’s doomed attempts to rekindle their relationship with extended flashbacks detailing their romantic courtship that not only offer a touching counterpoint to their current situation, but also reveal the reasons why their marriage isn’t exactly made in heaven.

It’s a bittersweet story that deliberately avoids the conventional rollercoaster arc of romantic drama, concentrating instead on the petty jealousies and small-minded bickering that creates a believable intimacy between Gosling and Williams, yet it’s those very details that gradually snowball to reveal the gaping chasm between the pair.

Both Gosling and Williams are superb, and their characters’ plight is given an added poignancy by a terrific performance by Faith Wladyka as the couple’s blissfully unaware young daughter, Frankie. Every marriage is unique, of course, but Cianfrance has here succeeded in getting under the skin of every marriage to explore a relationship that is by turns tender and brutal, where the smallest gesture or softest word can inflict the most grievous wounds. The slow pace and two-hour running time rewards patience, with Gosling, Williams and particularly Wladyka delivering a finale that is as heart-wrenching as it is inevitable.

THE ending to Conviction (US/15A/106 mins) is equally inevitable, although Tony Goldwyn’s film feels entirely contrived by comparison with Blue Valentine. Based on a true story, Conviction concerns itself with Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), a Massachusetts man convicted of the brutal murder of an old woman in 1983.

The story, however, belongs to Kenny’s sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), who defied her trailer-trash upbringing and enrolled in law school in order to qualify as a lawyer and prove Kenny’s innocence. Anyone who has seen Erin Brockovich (2000) will have a fair idea of how the story pans out: blue collar Betty Anne sticks it to the system, in the process proving that one woman really can make a difference.

The producers are obviously hoping that Conviction will appeal to Oscar voters in the way Erin Brockovich did, but there are some crucial differences here. One is that the rather anaemic Swank, despite flattening her vowels to within an inch of their life, is blown off the screen every time she sits down to talk with the incarcerated Rockwell, who has a whale of a time playing the disturbed, violent Kenny.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Conviction is not a story about an upstanding citizen who suffers a travesty of justice. Kenny is a brutal man when we first meet him, a thug prone to random violence. Flashbacks suggest that Kenny and Betty Anne’s troubled childhood played its part in creating the aggressive lowlife Kenny became, but the more we find out about Kenny, the more we’re convinced that society is better off with Kenny in prison, whether or not he’s guilty of the specific murder he was charged with.

Betty Anne’s devotion to her brother is undeniably touching, particularly as it takes her 20 years to have him freed, and costs her her marriage, but Betty Anne is apparently the only person who can’t see that Kenny is probably better off where he is. In fact, it’s Rockwell who delivers the movie’s most telling line, when Kenny tells Betty Anne: “Doesn’t matter if I killed Mrs Brow or not. I’m a piece of shit, no good to anybody.” Dead within six months of leaving prison, after falling off a wall (although you won’t learn that from watching the film), Kenny Waters’ life was undoubtedly nasty, brutish and short. Conviction, on the other hand, while solidly constructed, is saccharine sweet, self-deludingly tender and overly long.

THE Green Hornet 3D (US/12A/118 mins) is the latest superhero spoof, with Seth Rogen playing the eponymous hero, a decadent playboy who invents a crime-fighting alter ego in the wake of his father, a legendary newspaperman. Michel Gondry’s film hints at serious issues, one being the correlation between crime statistics and corrupt journalists, but the story is dominated by Rogen’s bumbling ego-maniac and the tensions between him and his sidekick Kato (Jay Chou) as they target crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz).

The action sequences are executed with impressive brio, apart from the ending, which rumbles on interminably, but the characters are poorly drawn (Cameron Diaz’s secretary-cum-criminologist in particular) and the jokes, most of them concerned with a cynical public’s lowered expectations of the nobility of superheroes, have been covered many times before, most recently in last month’s vastly superior Megamind.

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