Is love really lovelier, as the song goes, the second time around? In The Face of Love, an uneven but polished and emotionally compelling love story starring Annette Bening and Ed Harris, the question gets a challenging new slant. She’s a lonely, grief-stricken widow named Nikki whose husband of 30 perfect years (Mr. Harris) dies in a boating accident on a vacation in Mexico, leaving a once-vibrant woman fragile, despondent and unable to find much interest in life. Anyone who knows what real loss is will identify with what she’s going through, and Ms. Bening does a touching, masterful job of conveying real emotional pain.
The Face of Love ★★★
Written by: Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin
Five years later, while sauntering through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she sees a man who looks so much like her ex-husband, Garrett, that it takes her breath away. Intrigued, she follows his SUV, looks him up on the Internet, traces him to an art class he teaches and engages him for private painting lessons. A rapport blossoms and develops into a surrender of deep affection. The man (also played by Mr. Harris) is on the verge of breaking too—a divorced college professor named Tom whose wife left him for someone younger. What Nikki and Tom find together seems like a dream come true. But her big mistake is falling in love with a surrogate for a lost companion just to bring a missing presence back to life. The more he reciprocates, the more she recoils, asking her reflection in the mirror, “What are you doing?” Even as she succumbs to old passions revived, she never tells him the truth about her husband’s death, shows him a photo of Garrett or admits why she found him so instantly irresistible. But he doesn’t tell her about his bum ticker, either. Where is this going? How will it end?
It sounds turgid, but it’s a fine example of how two great actors can lift questionable material beyond its limitations. The premise is unlikely, but every time it edges uncomfortably in the direction of soap opera, they rescue it, making you care. Sinewy, craggily alpha but vulnerable, balding but virile, Tom’s the exact double of the man Nikki thought she lost forever, yet she keeps his identity a secret from her own daughter (Jess Weixler) and friendly neighbor Roger (Robin Williams), who has always secretly loved her himself. Knowing nothing about any of this, Tom finds her funny, wise and interesting; she’s the mate he has been looking for in vain. Yet they are strangers. Just how little they really know about each other floats to the surface when Nikki takes Tom back to Mexico, hoping to relive the past, and in the happy resort where Garrett died, he accidentally finds a photo of the couple for the first time. The effect it has on their relationship is shattering.
For the most part, The Face of Love is sensitively directed by Arie Posin and co-written with sincerity by Mr. Posin and Matthew McDuffie. A trite, unconvincing ending, in the form of a credo, finally succumbs to the kind of melodrama the rest of the movie successfully avoids and leaves an unsettling aftertaste. But the acting is bliss. Ms. Bening, whose strength and toughness shines through her usual work, is more appealing than ever as a woman searching for a noble way to move on from a tragic past to a hopeful future, and Mr. Harris makes a touching transition from his signature action flicks to the role of a man who is needy, patient, thoughtful and emotionally generous yet easily hurt. Attractive and nuanced, they give The Face of Love all they’ve got and then some.