"Oh, Let Them Talk"

Our Souls at Night
(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. Ritesh Batra, Writ. Scott Neustadter, Michael Webb
Starring: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda,  Matthias Schoenaerts, Phyllis Somerville, Bruce Dern
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford star in Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night lets Netflix hit its stride with an original production that benefits from the smaller screens on which most audiences will see it. After the so-so Beasts of No Nation and the excellent First They Killed My Father, which really demand the grandeur of a theatrical screen for optimal effect, this sparse and delicately restrained adaptation of Kent Haruf’s equally simplistic posthumous novel fits the scale of the streaming site handsomely. It helps, too, that director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) knows what prizes he has in veteran actors Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. A film like Our Souls at Night doesn’t need any dressings when the core of the film—its stars and its script—is so rich and substantial.

Our Souls at Night is a two-hander with golden gloves. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are remarkable together in this bittersweet no-frills drama about late-blooming love. Redford and Fonda star as Louis Waters and Addie Moore, two neighbours in the small town of Hart, Colorado. They don’t know each other very well since their kids didn’t run with the same crowd and they weren’t part of the dinner party brigade. Now that they’ve both been widowed for years, too, there aren’t many obvious reasons for them to mingle.

However, Addie courageously strides down the street one night, knocks on Louis’s door, and offers a perfectly decent proposal. She’d like him to consider sleeping with her. Nothing sexual, mind you—Addie just wants someone to share the bed with and take away the loneliness she feels when day recedes to night. From experience, she knows Louis feels the same. The pensive longing on both actors’ weathered faces doesn’t need any words to convey that these two souls have spent far too many nights alone.

Louis takes Addie up on her offer and scurries in the back door a few nights later. Worried about prying eyes in their small American town, he acts as if companionship equals infidelity.

“Oh, let them talk,” Addie replies.

At this age and after all these years alone, both Addie and Louis know that love and loss aren’t anyone else’s business. Hart’s a small town, though, and people do talk, particularly the group of old salts, led by Bruce Dern, with whom Louis has coffee at the local café. Addie’s grocery-going companion (Phyllis Somerville), on the other hand, doesn’t understand why the pair is only sleeping and talking.

When Addie’s son Gene (a miscast Matthias Schoenaerts) drops off his son Jamie (Iain Armitage) to stay a while, the couple enjoys the experience of creating a new family. Having a kid again lets Addie and Louis rediscover some of the joys long lost, although Gene’s discovery of the relationship and his inevitable disapproval of it prove difficult.

There’s something wonderfully refreshing to this laid-back romance, though. There’s a universal message to the film as these old souls discover love and celebrate it without the concern for prying eyes or social codes. Redford and Fonda are warm and intimate, comfortable with silence and ready to be vulnerable as the characters open up about some of the greatest pains they’ve experienced in their respective marriages.

Batra seems far more comfortable giving Redford the close-ups, though, which creates an emotional imbalance to the film as Louis becomes more accessible through Redford’s strong performance that relies on silence and restraint. Often framed in medium shots that keep her at a distance by comparison, Fonda needs to be more outwardly expressive in her performance, which works with Addie’s straight talking attitude compared to Louis’s status as a man of few words. One wishes the film got a little closer to Fonda, though, to even the playing field and make the drama belong to Addie as much as it does to Louis.

Batra’s televisual aesthetic sometimes works wonders in this faithful take on Haruf’s novel that mirrors the book’s unadorned prose. Just take one scene—perhaps the film’s best—in which Louis and Addie drive home after a trip out of town. The scene holds the actors close in a two-shot and long take that is free of dialogue yet speaks volumes about the intimacy of the characters. Addie undoes her seatbelt and shimmies across the bench seat over to Louis. It’s a long, drawn out, and flirtatious gesture as Fonda teases out the act of cozying up to Redford for the rest of the ride home. He keeps his eyes on the road, but the warmth of the scene radiates with a couple in love.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the screen icons last starred together in films like Electric Cowboy and Barefoot in the Park and it’s worth the wait. Both Redford and Fonda are coming off some of the best performances of their careers with All is Lost and Youth and Grace & Frankie, respectively, and they’re true models for aging gracefully and developing each character they inhabit with seasoned wisdom.

Our Souls at Night is now streaming on Netflix.