Each year the Oscar frontrunners emerge before Christmas, as the Golden Globes and Bafta nominations start to solidify around a seemingly preordained handful of films. This year, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, Inception, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right and Blue Valentine seem to have it sewn up between them. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, but patterns have already formed. Last night I was waiting in the Curzon bar to see Blue Valentine, this year’s indie outsider along with Winter’s Bone, for awards season glory, and the place was rammed with mostly older couples there to see The King’s Speech, whose later showing was already advertised on notices as being sold out. It’s a small cinema, but nevertheless “sold out” is an unusual notice to read there. You have to hand it to The King’s Speech – it’s the film that’s really getting people out to the cinema.
There were only 14 of us in the Curzon’s smallest screen to see Blue Valentine, but then, hey, it’s a low-key, downbeat, grainy little indie whose “stars” are not Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and is not designed for a mass audience. It’s a much more interesting film than The King’s Speech, in that it operates at close range and presents an unflinching portrait of a young, three-year-old marriage on the verge of collapse. It has one joke in it, which is told by Michelle Williams’ character Cindy to Ryan Gosling’s suitor Dean on a New York bus, and it gave all 14 of us a welcome little release of laughter amid the gloom. (I won’t re-tell it here, but it involves a small child and a child molester, and might be described as off-colour. It’s superbly chosen, and I don’t know if it was scripted by first-time director Derek Cianfrance, or improvised by the actors, but its focus on violence towards a child is jarring, since the couple’s devotion to their child is the one thing that unites them as they fall to bits. The more I think about the joke which made us all laugh, nervously, and with relief, the cleverer I think it is.)
It’s not startlingly original to depict a relationship’s beginning and its end, nor to show the end first, as Blue Valentine does, or at least jumps back and forth between the sour outcome and the sweet beginnings. But it is disconcerting to witness the first time Dean and Cindy meet, by chance, at an old folks’ home – he’s there as a removals man, she’s there settling in her grandmother – and his cute first attempts at wooing her, intercut with scenes from a dying marriage, poisoned, or so it seems, by routine, drink, the stresses and strains of bringing up a daughter, and Dean’s hair falling out. (The physical changes, more blatant in Gosling – who may well have had the front of his head shaved – are both a neat temporal identification device, and shorthand for physical neglect. Cindy changes too, but her spirit seems to shine through, perhaps because, as a nurse, she has someone else to think about while working; Dean paints walls and spends time mainly with himself.)
With a soundtrack by Grizzly Bear to match the ubiquitous plaid shirts, and plenty – too much? – grubby, realistic sex, this is at times a sort of parody of an indie love story. Unlike Winter’s Bone, its Oscar tokenism nemesis, its setting is familiar, its message well-rehearsed, and the strain for shrugging, mumbled realism robs Blue Valentine of all melodrama. This may be a good thing, but Winter’s Bone takes us somewhere we don’t normally go, and manages to spice the everyday story of Ozarks folk with thriller elements and a certain Gothic unreality.
I’m not complaining. You will certainly buy Gosling and Williams as a couple, at both ends of their relationship, and details about each character’s own upbringing are sketched in, not banged home with a mallet, which is a change.
Just as indie was never meant to describe a musical style, nor should it be used to describe a cinematic one. But it is one, isn’t it?