Stellar cast make The Face of Love worthwhile

The Face of Love. Directed by Arie Posin. Starring Annette Bening and Ed Harris. Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Annette Bening proves that passion, romance and mystery can exist in a post-menopausal package; she’s a force to be reckoned with in The Face of Love, an age-appropriate romance and study of grief co-starring Ed Harris.

Five years after the death of her husband Garrett (Harris), Nikki (Bening) is still haunted by memories. It’s her feet that we notice first: she’s shuffling, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to get through another meaningless day, days spent having to tell telemarketers that her husband is dead, and nights spent waking up and looking for him.

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Nikki is a home-staging guru with a grown daughter living in Seattle. She purged the house of all of Garrett’s things after his death; but since the house itself was designed by him, every square foot is a reminder of the ideal life they spent together. Other than the occasional visit from daughter Summer (Jess Weixler) and meal shared by fellow grieving neighbour Roger (a sad-sack Robin Williams), she leads a solitary life.

One day at Summer’s urging Nikki visits the L.A. County Museum of Art, a favourite spot of her and Garrett’s. While there she sees a man who is the spitting image of her late husband. She starts to haunt the museum daily, hoping he’ll return.

Armed with a few clues, she shows up to the man’s work. His name is Tom (also played by Harris) and he’s an art teacher. After an embarrassing first encounter during which Nikki dissolves in tears, she bucks up the courage to approach him again: would he be willing to give her private lessons? A relationship is forged.

Against her better judgment Nikki encourages the relationship, which turns to love on Tom’s part, and into a twisted obsession for Nikki. “I could take a bath in how you look at me,” says Tom, not knowing about Nikki’s motivation for picking out certain restaurants (ones that she and Garrett used to frequent) and for preferring to have Tom come to her house (rather than be confused by photos of him in his other life).

“You breathe life into the emptiness,” Ed says of Nikki’s profession, ironic, given how hollow her life has been. The new romance gives Nikki the strength to look back, to read old letters. Tom has a secret or two of his own, and the affair makes them both dig through the past.

And increasingly for Nikki, Tom is Garrett. “I’m more in love with Garrett than ever,” she confides to Roger. In order to maintain the illusion that Garrett never left, she just needs to keep Tom away from Roger, who was a friend of her husband’s, and from Summer. Both would be traumatized by the resemblance.

It’s an uncomfortable love story, a tense one, because we know that it can’t end well.

Director Arie Posin (The Chumscrubber) also co-wrote the script. True, we wish his characters were a little more fully drawn, and that we could’ve spent more time with them. But knowing so little about Nikki, Tom and Garrett also serves to deepen the sense of what could happen: is Nikki a certifiable nutjob, for example, or is she just wading through another stage of grief?

The absence of a thorough backstory will either leave you feeling as though the film is a throwback to less convoluted storytelling, or a soap opera, depending on your taste. With the electric Bening in particular and Harris at the helm, it hardly matters. Their shared chemistry elevates the material and makes The Face of Love — a grown-up romance brimming with suspense — a film worth watching.

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