What makes a marriage work — and what happens if it doesn’t? What do you do if you’re a partner in that marriage? Is there an Act Two, if not for the both of you, then for yourself? In different ways, two movies address that question from interesting angles. Both are extremely well made, challenging and quietly moving.
In The Lunchbox, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young wife raising her daughter while her husband disappears to work each morning and returns at night, equally silent and indifferent on either end of the clock. Ila cooks for him a daily lunch that looks steamingly delicious. (This is one of those movies that foodies will love, but the gastro-porn is kept to a minimum.)
These meals are delivered via a famously complex and accurate courier system to the workplaces of these stay-at-home wives’ husbands. Except, for some weird reason, one day Ila’s lunch lands on the desk of about-to-retire claims adjuster Saajan (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi).
When Ila discovers that her food is going to someone other than her husband, a quiet friendship, then semi-courtship, develops as she and Saajan pass notes to each other, stashed inside the metal lunch container. Criticisms and compliments about Ila’s cooking make way for quietly confessional notes about their lives — mainly, the loneliness both people feel: she as an underappreciated wife, he as a widower with no children. They open each other up, emotionally.
For the older man, as important to this process is the ambitious young Shaikh (the ingratiating Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who shows up to be trained as Saajan’s replacement. Saajan first ignores him as a brash upstart, then is forced to reconsider when Shaikh discloses the challenges he has swum against to make his way in the world. They become friends as unlikely and as deeply as Saajan and Ila become soulmates through their lunchtime notes.
This first feature from writer-director Ritesh Batra is distinguished by a generous restraint. Does that make sense? What I mean is, our movie-going senses are trained to expect a very specific trajectory. The central storyline between Saajan and Ila looks like a romance. And it is. But this “romance” is not necessarily about two people coming together, but about those people becoming unified within themselves. (You might say that Eat Pray Love might have had a deeper dimension if Julia Roberts didn’t get to enjoy the amorous icing of hunky Javier Bardem falling for her in the last act of that movie.)
Anyway, The Lunchbox is one to watch.
So is Le Week-End, the latest collaboration between director Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Intimacy). They made the interesting Venus and The Mother previously. Here they continue to explore characters of a certain age that films don’t usually even bother to acknowledge, much less make as their focus.
The great Jim Broadbent (Oscar winner for Iris) and the great Lindsay Duncan (the original Madame Merteuil onstage in Les Liaisons Dangereuses) play Nick and Meg. Longtime British academics on a lower floor of the ivy tower, they’re taking a break in Paris to celebrate, sort of, their anniversary.
There’s a recklessness in Meg from the start. It manifests right away when she objects to the modest room her husband has booked (“It’s, um, beige!”) and throws their credit card at an expensive suite at a tonier hotel. She’s dissatisfied, he’s complacent, and their love for and exasperation with each other erupts as they trudge all over the city. (There’s a very funny edit, when what we think is the panting sound of passion is revealed to originate from the couple’s out-of-breath ascent of the steps of Montparnasse.)
They peruse restaurant menus from the sidewalk and speak in shorthand. They toast each other. They bicker. Often both things within the blink of an eye. As Nick puts it, “You can’t not love and hate the same person — usually in the space of five minutes.” They can recognize each other’s bruises, probably have pet names for them, and know exactly where to press to ache the most.
The movie’s rhythms are nicely rattled by Jeff Goldblum’s arrival as Morgan, a famous, best-selling philosopher (remember, this is France), whose international success in the City of Lights is a rebuff to his colleague and mentor, Nick, struggling along at his British polytechnic. Goldblum does what he has done most of his acting career — delivering a fluttery, ADHD, narcissistic monologue as Morgan. But he’s invaluable, and the book-launch dinner he invites Meg and Nick to attend is the film’s climax.
Le Week-End has weak spots. There are antics, bordering on painful, look-at-what-older-people-get-up-to scenes. (I’m thinking of a dine-and-dash sequence at an expensive restaurant, a beat Duncan saves through her commitment to a silly premise.) But it’s generally fair and challenging. If nothing else it raises the awkward issue of people around retirement age negotiating the issue of sex. (Nick wants it, Meg doesn’t — or not necessarily with him.)
The movie draws toward its end with a devastating confession by Nick at Morgan’s swank dinner party, where he lays himself bare personally and professionally. It’s the sort of gambit that challenges everyone in the room not to turn their backs on him. That would be the easiest response. How Meg reacts is a moment of such simple, quiet, loving grace, there’s something miraculous to it.
Le Week-End is best in dramatizing the push-and-pull of a long relationship. Neither person is right. Yet each one of them is right. And, sigh, they have to live and eat and sleep together. Figure that one out. The movie celebrates the daily draw of that battle, while acknowledging that, on some other day, the field could be fatally blood-soaked.
The Lunchbox. With Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Written and directed by Ritesh Batra. In Hindi and English, with subtitles. Rated PG. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Le Week-End. With Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent. Directed by Roger Michell. Rated R. 93 minutes. At the Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs.