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Movie Review: Nights In Rodanthe

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Rodanthe. Sounds like someplace in a fairy tale. Nicholas Sparks, author of the novel the film is based upon, has said he chose the town partly because of its evocative name. And one does imagine a place exactly as it is in reality: isolated, surrounded by untouched beauty, but at peril of forces larger than life. It is a perfect setting for this film.

Rodanthe (Roh-DAN-thee) is a real place, a shoreline town on Hatteras, a small island off the North Carolina coast. It’s beautiful, but it sits squarely in hurricane territory. If this story is a fairy tale, it is a dark one. Somewhat, forgive the pun, grim. Then again, authentic fairy tales always contain darkness somewhere within, whether a life affirming story or a cautionary tale.

Nights in Rodanthe, a new film co-starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, was filmed in and around its namesake location. This verisimilitude bleeds into the frames of film; that, and the co-stars’ long ‘real life’ friendship and working history infuse a reality that can’t be escaped. And it is a good thing, this anchoring which real locations and real relationships have lent. The rest of the film is as unreal as it can be. Unreal, but also poetic, unapologetically so. This is a film dealing in feelings, in symbols, and in fleeting images of the type one might glance in someone’s photo album. Before one can think to ask a question, someone turns the page. Something in the mystery keeps you looking in, and eventually, the questions drop, for the sheer joy of looking at every image in those frames. That is the feeling I have gotten looking through someone’s life history in a treasured photo album, and the same feeling is what one is left with after viewing this movie.

Nights in Rodanthe is Lane’s film. It isn’t that her acting is better than Gere’s, or that of the capable supporting cast. In fact, next to Gere’s subtlety, Lane can at times seem mannered, strange for a lifelong film actress. She at times seems almost stagey. Still, one tells oneself, her character is one who is not comfortable in her own skin. And, within the film, her suppressed hausfrau character is only acting the part of the hostess of this inn. The inn, central to this story, belongs to her best friend. Lane’s character has fled there to escape her selfish, unconcerned family. She’s fled a lifetime of self-denial. No, I say this is Lane’s movie because in the end, that photo album of imagery this film is comprised of belongs to Diane Lane’s character, Adrienne Willis. The arc of the story really is hers. Adrienne Willis is a woman who has spent her life changing to suit other people, running along after them to clean up their messes. And then, one day, she simply cannot do that any longer. And her story begins to change.

The plot devices in this film are large. This is not a subtle film, more a gothic melodrama. Jack Willis (Christopher Meloni) isn’t merely unsuitable; he’s abandoned his family for a months-long affair, then returned as if nothing happened. Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) isn’t merely arrogant, but obsessed with being “the best doctor” at the expense of everything else in his life. Adrienne and Paul are thrown together at the worst time in each of their lives. Each has put their symbolic eggs in one basket, then watched as it broke to pieces. They see each other at their worst. Paul is there to hide; so is Adrienne, each for personal reasons. Paul, the inn’s lone guest, finds himself at Hatteras Island after a tragedy upends his carefully constructed plans. He feels driven ashore like so much driftwood. Both Paul and Adrienne are miserable inside; this is the point of forced change for each. What passed as perfection before was only an illusion which could not withstand a storm. Still, each clings to the shreds of what was left standing of their former life. Then, the symbolic storm materializes. An enormous hurricane batters Rodanthe. Literally, winds of change break down their resistance. (Told you, this film is not subtle.)

We as the audience must suspend disbelief and see past some quirky behavior. We watch as they fall in love over a four-day weekend; they are both seeing each other at their angriest and most lost. Neither seems very lovable. Neither is trying to impress, aside from Adrienne’s duties as host. Even that formality is soon swept aside, as they each unload frustrations meant for others. Hostility replaces hospitality. (She could have at least made sure he had a flashlight for the hurricane, angry at him or not — lawsuit risk!) But the more they yell at each other, the more they intrigue each other. For Paul and Adrienne, vehement arguments seem to be a courtship ritual.

We must overlook other story devices, such as the long correspondence that comes later. Handwritten letters? No email or cell phones? Sure, real letters written on real paper are much more romantic. But since a cell phone or email would have averted something unfortunate later in the film, one questions this storyline convenience. In the end, one mustn’t look overly closely at the details. As an impressionistic poem, the film works. As a life lesson it works. Up close, believability is sometimes strained. Anger is attractive? The innkeeper is a perfect beauty? Two middle-aged adults are that sure after a few days? The viewer must decide to take this film at its word, if it is to be enjoyed. Like certain old Hollywood films, the feeling one is left with becomes more important than the realism or lack thereof.

Technically speaking, the film’s color palette is gorgeous, and appropriate. Set in a beach town beautiful in its simplicity and untouched landscape, the colors of sand and sea echo throughout the film. The palette consists of blue, brown, beige, white, and amber for the most part. During the storm sequence, those colors all darken. Technical effects in that sequence are brilliant. Music adds texture to the story — Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, as well as some bluegrass and folk music. My favorite scene was the post-hurricane party scene, though I failed to find out who the musicians on the bandstand were. They seemed like local talent. I’d really like to know. The soundtrack, and the film score, are worth buying, and the movie itself is worth seeing. Just don’t expect a love story. Not a light and airy one, at least.

It’s a life story. It’s what happens when a force of nature comes and rips life apart. As the storm clears, the choices we make define who we are. Everything up until then can seem like a rehearsal for those defining moments. Few things are as galvanizing as a cataclysmic event. So it is for Paul and Adrienne. She can overlook his anger and arrogance and fear; he can overlook her timidity. Like the driftwood that washes ashore on the beach, which local women fashion into art, the pair become “more beautiful for the twisted scars” as Adrienne describes the driftwood keepsake boxes. In her gentle hands Paul can find his lost grace; in his honest accounting of her self-deception, she can find her true nature.

In the end, nature drives this story; human nature is only a small part of it. In the end, it is our souls we must account to, their purity and their dignity. They deserve to be followed or simply watched in awe. There is only one life, and it’s best lived wild and free as the horses of this fragile island. In a moment it can be swept away, so live every moment with that in mind. That is the message of Nights in Rodanthe. That is what’s unsaid in the spaces of that photo album we can’t help staring at, or the images comprising this strangely compelling movie.

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  • marc james

    I loved this movie! Diane Lane was superb!