Future author Ruth Cole (Elle Fanning, "Daddy Day Care") is marked by one beachside summer when her parents marriage fell apart. The tragedy of the loss of two teenage boys drives Marion Cole (Kim Basinger, "8 Mile) into the arms of her husband's handpicked teenage assistant Eddie (Jon Foster, TV's "Life as We Know It") while Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges, "Seabiscuit") observes from his own adulterous sidelines. Four year old Ruth's memories will forever mix the emotional upheaval of that time with her dad's children's book "The Door in the Floor."
Director Tod Williams ("The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") made an unusual choice in adapting the first third of a book - John Irving's "A Widow for One Year" - and it turns out to be an inspired one. Williams' adaptation is unflaggingly faithful while also illuminating the marvelous parallels and symbols of words and pictures that Irving uses to connect his characters. This is a wonderfully acted adult drama.
Whereas the book's point of view was Ruth's (the remainder of the book tells her story), the film's viewpoint is from masculine eyes. Ted shows his wife a picture of a college student he is considering for summer help. Eddie arrives by ferry and is surprised to be met at the dock by Marion rather than Ted, then surprised again when Marion drops him off and leaves. The Coles are in a trial separation. Eddie finds himself retyping Ted's new book (inspired by Elle's middle of the night observation that 'it was a sound like someone trying not to make a sound'), which never progresses further than one page. He's also a driver for Ted, who has lost his license presumably for drunk driving. Ted, who proclaims himself 'an entertainer of children who likes to draw,' spends most of his time having affairs with the local women he persuades to pose in the nude. Eddie is quietly appalled by Ted's behavior, seeing as how he has become obsessed with Marion.
Marion is embarrassed one day when she walks in on Eddie masturbating to her bra and panties, but Eddie's desire also awakens something in her for the first time since she lost her sons. Marion seduces Eddie, in her own odd way reconnecting with the years Tim and Ted never grew up to see. Ted tells Eddie he's grateful for his 'friendship' with Marion, as she's finally showing signs of life, but when Ruth walks in on her mother and Eddie having sex (poor Eddie's sex life is constantly interrupted by the Cole women), Ted draws the line.
In addition to Ted's drawings, both his nudes (one of which makes a hilariously unexpected appearance) and his illustrations for his own books, the Cole summer home's hallways are haunted by black and white photographs of Tom and Tim. Ruth ritually tells the stories behind each one like a pint-sized historian and becomes agitated if one is moved (one picture shows the elder brother posed just like Eddie's college snap). These stories about children suggest the author in the making, while her dad's children's books have fear of women at their core (an adoring college student suggests to Ted that the door in the floor is a vagina, a subject Ted happens to draw, but not for inclusion in his books).
American treasure Jeff Bridges gives one of his finest performances as Ted Cole, the artist as bohemian, revelling in booze and women, who loves his wife but is confused by the female species. Bridges is both funny and sad and gives the comedy and drama equal and skillful measure. Basinger is faced with playing a character of more mysterious motivation, and while she produces a sympathetic Marion, she doesn't quite get across Marion's inner emotions. Newcomer Foster gives a breakthrough performance as the boy who becomes a man while being used by both parties of a marital meltdown. Eddie lives through a real developmental arc, from shy adolescent towards an aggressively responsible maturity and Foster conveys the change gradually and naturally. Also good are Mimi Rogers ("Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd") as Ted's latest subject Evelyn, pitiful as a woman humiliated, funny as a woman wrecking vengeance, and Donna Murphy ("Spider-Man 2") as a frame shop owner who reacts to Eddie's entire soap opera summer via complaint forms. Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, is perfectly believable without undue precocity. Terry Stacey's ("American Splendor") cinematography and Thérèse DePrez's ("American Splendor") production design both have the light, airy quality of a cool summer breeze.
Ted and Marion Cole (Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger) once had a perfect marriage – until tragedy struck and they witness their teenaged sons, Thomas and Timothy, getting killed in a horrible car accident. Now, five years later, her constant despondency and his infidelities have further driven the couple apart. Ted decides that he needs an assistant and hires Eddie O’Hare, an upper classman at Exeter Academy, as his driver and gofer for the summer, but he also has other motives in “The Door in the Floor.”
Ted is a successful children’s' book author and illustrator. He also lost his license for driving under the influence, hence his hiring of Eddie to be his driver. Ted and Marion have grown steadily apart since their sons’ deaths, even after the birth of Ruth (Elle Fanning). Instead of bringing the estranged couple back together, the child’s presence has only served to drive the wedge between husband and wife ever deeper. Enter Eddie O’Hare.
Eddie, like any teenage boy, has a healthy libido that is set ablaze when he meets Marion, a beautiful, obviously troubled lady. He keeps his crush on her to himself until, one day, she walks in and accidentally catches him in a compromising circumstance involving articles of her clothes. Embarrassed, but flattered, by the young man’s obvious interest, Marion takes the first steps in putting to rest the tragedies that have ruled her every waking day for years. She finds solace in the arms of the young man.
Ted has not handled Marion’s emotional trauma too well, either, as he seeks his own form of comfort with the women he brings in to model for his drawings. His latest, Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), is a middle aged, wealthy local divorcee who sees Ted as more than just a fling. For him, she is just another model who he pushes through the stages of innocence, modesty, degradation and, finally, shame. Ted’s arrested development appears to be his own mismanaged way of coping with the loss of his sons.
Writer/director Tod Williams made an unusual decision in his adaptation of John Irving’s decades-spanning novel, A Widow for One Year. Instead of trying to recreate the whole book, Williams concentrates on the first third of what is an epic story. The young director/scribe culls a perfectly formed tragic drama about a couple that still love each other deeply but their tragic past and horrible loss has put an insurmountable wall between them.
Of course, it helps to have a fine cast putting real personality into their characters. Jeff Bridges does not get the attention he deserves as an actor, in my mind, and gives a terrific turn as Ted Cole. On the surface he is a hedonist but there is far more to the man and Bridges creates a fully dimensional being. Kim Basinger has the tough role of the tormented wife and mother who, daily, relives the violent accident that took away her beloved sons. The actress gives nuance to her performance as she opens up, physically and emotionally, to Eddie, struggles with her feelings for 4-year old Ruth (loving her but not wanting her daughter) and copes with Ted frequent infidelities.
Jon Foster does a first class job in giving Eddie O’Hare both character and an arc as the young innocent arrives to work for the man he idolizes and wants to emulate. Eddie grows and changes as the film progresses and, in the end, the boy has become a man. Mimi Rogers gives the bravest performance of her career as the bored divorcee who thinks that Ted is hers only to be sadly mistaken. Little Elle Fanning, sister to the tremendously talented Dakota, is following in big sister’s footsteps and gives an unabashed perf as psychologically scarred Ruth. Is this an acting dynasty in the making?
The behind the camera crew is equal to the task of creating the world of the Coles. Costume, by Eric Damon, does a great job of showing the bohemian in Ted with his well-worn galabia and scruffy outfits (though nudity is a big part of Ted’s life, too). Marion is given a well-groomed casual wardrobe and the still svelte Basinger wears it all well. Camera, by Terry Stacey, serves the director with frequent use of static medium shots intended to let the actors control the screen. The production design works well with the ramble oceanside Cole manse with its photograph covered walls chronicling the Cole family history until the tragic day five years before. Attention to details like Ted’s cheesy in-town apartment he took when he and Marion grew apart and his artist’s loft help give variety to the locales.
Writer/director Williams makes a big leap from his quirky calling card debut film, “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole.” It is hard to believe that “The Door in the Floor” is only his second work. He deftly pulled a fully formed story out of a complicated source material, elicited dynamic performances from his talented cast and did it all with a maturity you would expect from a much more experienced hand. I wonder if Williams will tackle the rest of A Widow for One Year and bring us the whole John Irving story. He certainly did a fine job with part one. I give it an A-.
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