Small-town US moves at its own pace – if it moves at any pace at all. The streets long for the company of pedestrians; the supermarket aisles are deserted; the buses always have an empty seat. On most afternoons, the town hums with a slow listlessness, and, during long clear nights, you can almost hear the stars twinkle. Loneliness, in such a town, is not a consequence, but an eventuality; it rests on your shoulders and refuses to leave. Absolute serenity produces its own malaise. If an Indian small-town is an eager 20-something – restless, anxious and intense – then an American small-town is a weary septuagenarian – wise, composed and lonely.
American novelist Kent Haruf set his books in such a place, a small fictional town, Holt in Colorado, inspired by the city of Yuma, in the same state, with a population of less than 4,000. Haruf’s oeuvre spans six critically acclaimed novels, and his last in particular, Our Souls at Night, is a beguiling beauty. If novels are an invitation to an unfamiliar world, then reading Haruf feels like walking on red carpet. Held together by simple spare prose, where dialogues eschew quotation marks, Our Souls at Night melts your heart slowly and methodically, like a cube of ice subjected to a low flame. So it’s not surprising that Ritesh Batra, who examined love and loneliness in his first two productions, The Lunchbox and The Sense of an Ending, turned to Haruf’s last for his latest, a Netflix original starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
Like Haruf’s novel, Batra’s Our Souls at Night begins with an old widow, Addie Moore (Fonda), visiting an old widower, Louis Waters (Redford), with an unusual request.
“I want to suggest something to you”, she says, with a soft smile on her lips. “It’s a… proposal of sorts. Not marriage. It’s a kind of marriage-like question, actually, but umm… I’m getting cold feet.”
Louis shuffles in his seat and chuckles.
“Would you be interested in coming to my house sometime to sleep with me?”
He arches his eyebrows.
“Did I take your breath away?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“See… we’re both alone. We’ve been on our own for… for years. And, uh… I’m lonely. I’m guessing you might be, too.”
He looks at her, not saying anything.
“Louis, it’s not about sex. I lost interest in that a long time ago.”
He accepts the offer with slight hesitation.
Setting the tone with this small scene, Batra beautifully captures the mood of Haruf’s novel, the essence of its protagonists and the pulse of Holt, where the days are lonely, and the nights lonelier. Batra is no stranger to slippery bylanes of adaptation. His last film, The Sense of an Ending, found its source in a dense Julian Barnes novel, ruminating on memory and loss, storytelling and self-deception, gliding through different times and points of view. It was a particularly tricky book to adapt, and Batra did a commendable job, staying faithful to the material not in structure, but in spirit. Our Souls at Night, in comparison, is relatively straightforward, and Batra approaches it with quiet sure-footed steps.
Louis and Addie have lived in the same neighbourhood for decades. But till now, they have only known of each other, not known each other. With the new change in their lives, though, lying next to each other, they’ve to talk. But talk about what? Their current lives are mostly listless and unremarkable. Besides, if this isn’t about sex – or, for that matter, romance – then it has to be about something. Our Souls at Night is about that something – that something that cannot be defined, named, or explained; that something that exists because it feels right and comforting, that seeks to free itself from social mores and judgement.
Whenever Addie explains this new phase of life to a friend, the usual suspicions arise, and she quickly retreats to a hasty, “No, it’s not what it’s about.” As Addie and Louis bond, and get to know each other, we start knowing them, too. At the outset, they, like most old people, rendered infirm and vulnerable by the passage of time, appear compassionate and polite. But, like the novel, the film reveals their deepest insecurities and fear with seamless economy, via a handful of scenes illuminating their past – a past that maybe forgotten but not forgiven. Batra maintains an impressive distance from his characters. He underlines neither their virtues nor their flaws. Both of them, it soon becomes clear, let their children down, ignored and abandoned them, made them feel that they were not worthy of being loved.
Louis’s daughter, Holly (Judy Greer), years after a transformative episode, is seeing a therapist, while Addie’s son, Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts), is struggling to keep his marriage together, seeking refuge in alcohol, ignoring his son, Jamie (Iain Armitage), in the process. Both Holly and Gene have inherited disappointment, bitterness and regret from their parents, who are time and again rendered helpless by their past, where they were less empathetic, less responsible, less ambitious. The past in Our Souls at Night, though, hasn’t come to bite them; it is what it is, hanging like a pall on them at all times. They know that they can’t reason with, or amend, it. A simple apology won’t cut it. And yet, the film unfolds like a quest for apology, not from others, but from one’s own self – an act where a companion is just a silent witness.
Our Souls at Night doesn’t care for labels. Who are Louis and Addie, the film seems to ask initially, acquaintances, friends, or lovers? As their relationship evolves, from initial hesitation to shared vulnerability, the film seems to ask, how does it matter? Deceptively simple and quietly devastating, Our Souls at Night is a beautiful tribute to the powers of second chance, of reinventing lives. Both Addie and Louis protect each other, primarily from their own selves. “You did the right thing. You are a good man,” says Addie, at one point, when Louis slips into regret. If Louis and Addie are witnesses in each other’s lives, then so is this film, quietly watching them, letting them be, punctuating their lives with nearly no embellishments, except an agreeable background score registering small highs in their relationship.
Three films old, Batra has proved to be that rare Indian filmmaker who has truly transcended borders. He’s worked with film professionals belonging to three different countries, versed in different film grammar (Indian, Britain, American). He’s directed terrific actors around the world (Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Redford, Fonda), eliciting memorable performances. He’s skillfully adapted a particularly difficult novel (The Sense of an Ending). His debut, The Lunchbox, was the third-highest grossing foreign film in the US in 2014. In a world where film-viewing culture has become porous, thanks to several online streaming platforms, the arrival of someone like Batra is both significant and pertinent.
Haruf didn’t live long to see the publication of Our Souls at Night, the only novel of his that has seen a film adaptation (his 1999 book, Plainsong, was made into a TV movie). But it can be surmised without a reasonable doubt that Haruf would have approved, that even though his characters and setting have moved to a different medium, their loneliness still resonates, its gloom and the efforts to offset it, allows us to recognise ourselves, feel human.