When we first meet Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), they’re not in a happy place.
She bustles about the kitchen fixing breakfast for daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka); he playfully goads the cuddly moppet into messy food games. He chides Cindy for getting cross; she can barely look at him. This marriage is buckling fast. The whys swiftly become clear.
He’s a carefree, drink-abusing house-painter with no ambition beyond being a good husband and father; she’s a hard-working obstetrics nurse whose rose-tinted visions of life were curtailed by her tyrannical father.
They meet in an old folks’ home, the first of a plethora of flashbacks – the film’s only gimmick is mapping out the couple’s courtship over a period of several months while squeezing the present day into a 24-hour window.
It’s an elliptical divide that bears some dramatic fruit, skipping from the giddy euphoria of early love to the dark, reproachful gulf of now. But director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s temporal fiddling still yields a somewhat repetitive contrast between joyous highs and wretched lows.
Watching this union’s death throes is a wrench, though, because the onscreen bond forged by Williams and Gosling is so deep, intimate and honest. Theirs feels like a relationship ripped straight from bluecollar reality, not the pages of a screenplay.
Gosling may get to be the devoted romantic while Williams can appear distant and cold. But Blue Valentine doesn’t play the blame game: love and its loss are never rational.
You might feel like averting your gaze at times, but don’t – performances this penetrating are a sight to see.
A raw slog through one couple’s marital misery, but make no mistake: the combined talents of its stars will rip your heart out.