Lovely, Still

I can’t imagine a more apt title for “Lovely, Still” than the one it has. This sweet, surprising story about romance between senior citizens is uncommonly lovely, and a serene stillness rests over most of it. Of course, the title works the other way, too: The process of falling in love is lovely, still, even after all these years.

It is Christmastime in an unnamed snowy town, and Robert Malone (Martin Landau) is a lonely old man. He lives by himself in a house that he has occupied for 48 years, a house with minimal furniture and no pictures on the walls. The only gift under his Christmas tree is one he wrapped himself, addressed to himself. He works part-time as a bagger at a grocery store, where the doofy, over-eager manager, Mike (Adam Scott), wants him to invest in the publication of a homemade book of Christmas recipes.

Across the street, a widow named Mary (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Alex (Elizabeth Banks) have just moved in. Mary, seemingly smitten upon first laying eyes on the old man, invites Robert to dinner. Delighted by his sudden great fortune, Robert seeks dating advice from everyone he encounters the following day. Has he never even been on a date? Or has it just been too long since the last time?

Soon the two are dating, with Mary taking charge and Robert awestruck by her attention. He cannot believe that love has finally found him, so late in life. For the first time, he will have someone to spend Christmas with.

I jotted in my notes that there did not seem to be any real conflict in the story, and I kept waiting for something to happen that would raise the dramatic stakes. Only two things stood out: Robert’s vague but unsettling recurring nightmares, and a scene where Mary is panicked over not being able to refill a prescription. Still, it was pleasant enough to see this sunny romance blossom between two such fully compatible people. If that was going to be the film’s whole purpose, so be it.

As it turns out, that is not the film’s whole purpose. The film, an astonishingly well-crafted debut from writer/director Nik Fackler, has something up its sleeve, and all the tiny, strange details you might notice but disregard eventually come into play. What has been a moving and warmhearted love story becomes poignant for different reasons — lovely, still, but deeper and more powerful. It’s icing on an already-delicious cake, but icing that, you come to realize, the cake couldn’t have worked without.

Martin Landau gives a genuinely heart-wrenching performance as Robert, a man who by all rights should be grandfather to many happy grandchildren but who for some reason is alone. The unfairness and injustice of that lingers at the back of your mind: This is a nice, decent man. He deserves someone to love and care for him — someone like Mary, played with characteristic elegance and charm by Ellen Burstyn.

At the moment, “Lovely, Still” does not have a deal in place for theatrical release. I hope someone remedies that. It won’t make $100 million at the multiplex — it would be lucky to make $10 million on the art-house circuit — but a movie as expertly made as this, and as tender and subtly beautiful as this, deserves to be seen.

[Note: I reviewed this film when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008. I’m it has been reedited for its theatrical release, but I haven’t seen that version and don’t know how different it is.]

A- (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, brief mild profanity.)