Expectations can often be a bad thing, especially in the film reviewing game. Of course, it's not always the film's fault if it doesn't live up to one's expectations. What we expect a film to be, or are told it is – through other reviews, trailers etc – and what it actually is (or find it to be) can sometimes prove incompatible and thus disappointing. Case in point: Blue Valentine.
While a perfectly fine film, my expectations were high for Derek Cianfrance's feature, not helped by having to wait some 10 months to see it following its premiere at Sundance in January. Playing, and being raved about, at almost every major film festival throughout the year only added to my eagerness to see it.
My expectation of Blue Valentine, the depiction of the crumbling six year marriage of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), was that it would be a raw emotional experience that would either break my heart or deliver a gut-punch. Sadly, I got neither but again, that's not entirely the fault of the film.
Blue Valentine unfolds in in two time frames: the present where events take place over a 24-hour period and everything – past and present tensions and resentments – comes to a head for the couple; and flashing back to six years earlier, revealing how Cindy and Dean met, dated and came to be married. The beginning of love and the end.
One could compare Blue Valentine to 2008's Revolutionary Road, at least in its depiction of a marriage in free fall. Mendes's film, with its literary pedigree, period setting and heavy emoting, is a tragedy of operatic proportions compared to the minimalism employed in Cianfrance's film: a handheld camera for the flashbacks, red digital for the present; a modern, modest wardrobe. And the present day occurs during the Fourth of July weekend, which is ironic given that the emotional fireworks occur, for the most part, below the surface.
But whatever my disappointments with the film, I cannot fault the performances. Michelle Williams and, especially, Ryan Gosling lay their characters (and themselves) bare. Williams' is, for the most part, a contained performance, more gestural with her body language revealing everything she isn't saying; Cindy's planned medical career put on hold to raise a daughter just one source of resentment.
Gosling, who undergoes a marked physical transformation between past and present, has the more demonstrative role as a man who is content to be no more than a good husband and father. But he, too, has issues (anger, jealousy) stemming from the early stages of the relationship.
I would have liked to have seen Blue Valentine a second time before writing my review but time (and limited previews) were against me. I plan to revisit it in the future where I hope for a more positive re-evaluation. But my disappointment aside, I'd recommend seeing Cianfrance's film (it's the second best offering of the Boxing Day releases), if only for those performances.