In film, there are two different kinds of audience manipulation. One rings false and insults the viewer's intelligence. The other, better type knows exactly what it's doing, riling up a positive emotional response that cannot be denied. Both are admittedly shameless in their ploys, but it is the way that said manipulation is handled, embraced and pulled off that makes all the difference. "Nights in Rodanthe" fortunately falls into the latter category. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparksno stranger to a literary form of similar dramatic flourishesthe film is a romantic tearjerker that will have those willing to be swept up in classic love story histrionics alternately swooning and tearing up. People will call it a "chick flick"a label that has always seemed sexist and insulting from this writer's perspectivebut, really, who cares what it is? The picture succeeds more often than not in what it sets out to do.
Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane) is a dedicated mother who has willingly put her artistic aspirations on hold in order to raise her children, moody teenager Amanda (Mae Whitman) and thoughtful youngster Danny (Charlie Tahan). Separated from her cheating husband, Jack (Christopher Meloni), who suddenly tells her he wants her back moments before sweeping the kids off to a vacation in Orlando, Adrienne finds herself torn about whether or not she should give him a second chance. In the meantime, she agrees to act as hostess at North Carolina's beachside Inn at Rodanthe while the owner, best friend Jean (Viola Davis), is in Miami. Adrienne's sole lodger is Paul Flanner (Richard Gere), a doctor with a lot on his mind and a purpose for staying a few days in the Outer Banks area. As Paul stifles up the courage to face a grieving widow (Scott Glenn) whose wife recently died on his operating table, he and Adrienne hit it off, soulfully connecting in a way that they have never experienced before. Days later, neither of them are quite the same people as when they arrived in Rodanthe.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, "Nights in Rodanthe" is an adult love story between two mature, attractive, smart individuals. There are no petty misunderstandings and falling-outs between them, no contrived conflicts, and their relationship is not based on some sort of initial bet or game, with one person tearfully finding out the truth at the end of the second act and running off into the distance while the guilty party fruitfully says, "Let me explain!" To be sure, screenwriters Ann Peacock (2008's "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
") and John Romano have a trick up their own sleeves, but before this comes, it was more than refreshing to get to witness two characters fall in love onscreen, and look like they really mean it. The viewer believes in the breadth of their romance because time is spent getting to know them and watching them interact.
Adrienne and Paul are complex individuals, and their road to being together is one that starts cautiously before heating up. When Paul learns that Annie put her career on the backburner for the benefit of her family, he gives her reason to believe that it is possible to follow one's passion at the same timesomething that her husband never bothered to support her on. And for Paul, who feels guilty about the unavoidable death of one of his patients, but is unable to show it, Annie helps him to see that he will only be able to make peace with himself after he has made peace with the family members affected by the woman's unexpected passing. That these two protagonists have entire lives and complicated matters to face beyond what they hold together is beneficial, helping to flesh them out in a portrayal of the real world. When Paul and Annie dance together on a pier, the faint singing from a nearby crab feed heard in the distance, the moment is a simple, yet magical one. Their love scene, too, is carried out with unforced aplomb, tasteful yet lingering on them long enough to understand what the act means for each of them.
Without giving away the details of the film's third act, anyone familiar with author Nicholas Sparks' work will know that not everything is destined to turn out peachy keen. Turning melodramatic, the story's late developments feel a bit too pat and obligatory. The decision to reveal what is written in a key letter moments after it has been silently read by one of the characters is a particular misjudgment, as, by this time, the viewer already can guess what it says and don't need to be told. Even if "Nights in Rodanthe" does go the way of past big-screen weepers, it should be noted that it does not stop the movie from leaving a firm imprint on the viewer. Two scenes in particular are deeply touchingthe quiet centerpiece where the plot takes the aforementioned sharp turn, and a lovely one between Annie and daughter Amanda that resonates with authenticity.
Diane Lane (2008's "Untraceable
") has the market for romantic dramas cornered, and there's a reason for that. Effervescent on the inside and out, Lane has the emotional weight and abilities to make her every character jump off the page to become well-formed, layered human beings. Lane must play a flurry of diverse tones as Adrienne Willis, and she is always up to the demanding task. As Dr. Paul Flanner, Richard Gere (2004's "Shall We Dance
") is still dashing and also gripping, his propensity for playing romantic leads unwavering. Though it may sound like a cliché, Lane and Gere truly do light up the screen together, giving hope to actors over the age of forty that roles of this nature still really do exist. Supporting turns suffice all around, but this is primarily a two-person show. Of their co-stars, Mae Whitman, a former child actor who made her debut in 1994's "When a Man Loves a Woman," leaves a poignant impression as Annie's daughter Amanda. She is stunning for every second of her screentime.
Sumptuously lensed by cinematographer Affonso Beato (2006's "The Queen
"), who bathes the actors in flattering warm light and takes full advantage of the beatific on-location shooting along the North Carolina coast, "Nights in Rodanthe" features a terrific backdrop to compliment the storytelling. The editing by Brian A. Kates (2004's "The Woodsman
") is more uneven and occasionally choppy, with strange fast cuts popping up that would befit an action feature. This is a minor observation, however, and does not hinder the film's cumulative force. As a whole, "Nights in Rodanthe" is one of this year's most stirring romances, adroitly manipulative, yes, but never condescending.