“Last Night” is a perfect type of understated film to follow the blustery, pompous parade that is Oscar season. This brilliant debut feature by director Massy Tadjedin explores one night in the lives of four characters and the three couples they form. Viewers expecting a typical Hollywood open-and-shut romantic drama be warned—“Last Night” uncovers more questions about relationships and romantic love than it has the time or the inclination to answer.
Like a detective film dressed in drag, “Last Night” is a romance set against the shimming lights of a New York night that keeps the audience guessing until the final frame. The mystery at hand is the fate of a couple – Joanna and Michael, a pair of young, married professionals played by Keira Knightly and Sam Worthington, in two of the finest roles of their respective careers. Flanking Ms. Knightly and Mr. Worthington are Eva Mendes as a coworker of Micheal's and Guillaume Canet as a French former flame of Joanna's.
The film opens at a dinner party where Joanna becomes suspicious that her husband is embroiled in an affair with a new work associate, Ms. Mendes' Laura, after witnessing the flirtatious banter passing between the two. When the matrimonially bound couple returns home, Joanna interrogates her spouse about his gorgeous coworker. Michael protests innocence—a true statement when made, but one that threatens to turn to a lie if the right moment arises.
An overnight business trip that Micheal, accompanied by Laura, must make the morning following the dinner party provides such an opportunity. Micheal parts from Joanna less than harmoniously after the late night of accusations and recriminations, leaving Joanna free to chance upon an old lover while out for a morning coffee at a neighborhood cafe.
Mr. Canet's Alex is stereotypically French: a sensitive writer, involved with a woman back in Paris, but in New York on business and more than interested to catch up with Joanna. With the slightest hint of that coy hesitation that is a trademark of Ms. Knightly, Joanna accepts Alex's invitation to dinner with his editor, setting the stage for the fateful night.
At first glance, the simplicity of the premise—two married people wrestle with issues of temptation and infidelity over the course of a night apart—obscures the psychological complexity of the characters and relationships in “Last Night.” Ms. Tadjedin's superb script is teasing and withholding while still being assertive, for she weaves portraits of characters that stand poised on the very cusp of being fully formed and explicable, but never choose to cross that line.
Under the surprisingly deft hand of Ms. Tadjedin, the characters are precisely balanced in their depth and their development: Joanna and Alex receive the most screen time, with Michael and Laura serving as foils to their affaire de cœur, and with both the possible infidelities serving to draw stark contrasts with Joanna and Micheal's marriage. A less talented director might easily have turned the scenario into one of senseless cliches, but Ms. Tadjedin draws the audience further and further into the convoluted and contradictory desires of her protagonists, creating a world not populated by ethical conundrums personified, but by characters struggling with the fragmented ways that people relate.
What makes “Last Night” memorable is the film's unflinching examination of the obfuscation and prevarications that are the currency of relationships, be they long ended, newly beginning, or squarely in between. Ms. Tadjedin is loathe to pass judgment on the questions that her film raises about the possibility of honesty in relationships, preferring to craft an experience that will leave the audience with much to discuss when the theater lights return reality to focus. Consult your local listings for times and locations.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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