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The Notebook Artwork by Mister Gee

The Notebook

The Notebook Artwork by Mister Gee

Director: Nick Cassavetes / Screenplay: Jeremy Leven (from novel by Nicholas Sparks) / Editing: Alan Heim / DP: Robert Fraisse / Music: Aaron Zigman

Cast: Gena Rowlands / James Garner / Kevin Connolly / Ryan Gosling / Rachel McAdams / Joan Allen / Sam Shepard / David Thornton

Year: 2004

 

Catnip for the Terminally Romantic

 


T
he first Nicholas Sparks novel to be published, though the third to be adapted for film, The Notebook was first optioned in 1996, by Steven Spielberg who wanted none other than Tom Cruise for the lead. As these things tend to go in the movie business, you seldom end-up with either the actors or director you started out with and ‘Notebook is a case in point.

Nicholas Sparks, for those who aren’t familiar with his work, is something of a one-man-band within US publishing, being that rare, once-in-a-generation phenomenon: a man who writes ultra-successful romantic fiction. With a huge, loyal fanbase and an ever-expanding catalogue of novels, producers know they have a guaranteed audience with a ‘long tail’, so I’m surprised that it took so long for this one to get off the ground: maybe contract options had to expire, before it found its true level? 

GlassesIt was eventually dragged over the line some eight years later by Nick Cassavetes, son of legendary champion of independent cinema, John Cassavetes. By the time Cassavetes Junior came to the project, I get a sense of tiredness on the part of the producers; as though they’d exhausted all the higher profile names and JUST WANTED TO GET IT MADE and earn a return on their investment. Cassavetes’ filmography (a few misfiring vanity pictures with indie sensibilities) wasn’t an obvious grounding for a straightforward romantic picture, but I think he did a perfunctory job with the material given, though his subsequent output as a Director is the very definition of ‘Workmanlike’.

Adaptation of Sparks’ novel was handled by screenwriter Jeremy Leven, who’s career highlights to that point, appear to be Don Juan DeMarco (1994), in which Johnny Depp explored his comfort zone as the infamous lover and an adaptation of The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) for Robert Redford. ‘Vance is a novel with a dreamlike, pastoral feel and set in a similar era to ‘Notebook, so I can see why he might’ve been considered. Indeed, according to The Internet, Leven made a credible fist of adapting Sparks’ work, though I’m taking this on-trust…

Glasses‘Notebook sets-out its stall with consummate skill, with moodily filtered shots of a lone rower as he sculls into a blazing, ruby-red setting sun, courtesy of DP Robert Fraisse: it looks stunning, reminding me of the touches brought to On Golden Pond by DP Billy Williams, or some of Fraisse’s other work I reviewed in Seven Years in Tibet (1997). The obligatory slo-mo and flocks of white geese taking-off, as our unknown hero passes-by are all effective calling cards for what lays ahead, as much as the thoughtful, restrained score by Aaron Zigman that tinkles alongside. Alan Heim has edited & polished these shots to a burnished gleam and made it all look easy, when assembling a sequence of this calibre is anything but

As I watched this opening unfold, it occurred to me that this was actually my first exposure to the Sparks’ oeuvre, so I thought I’d pause things and list the kind of tropes I might expect. Going in, I’d read only the DVD sleeve and knew only that Sparks’ was known for writing romance, so what to expect? Well, romances seldom run as smoothly as the characters (or us) might like, so there’s going to be jeopardy of some kind. One or both of the leads are going to be conflicted in their desire for each other; I suspect there’ll be a ‘wrong side of the tracks’ thing to contend with, with love triumphing only after either one or both have Cleared A Lot Of Crap from their lives…

So far, so familiar? Yeah, thought so. Oh, almost forgot: someone’s got to die, or at least look Death in the face; usually as a way of heightening the senses and making the other person realise they’re staring at their Best Future and that, if they die, they’ll never be happy again. Right: let’s proceed and find out just how out of touch I really am…

GlassesOur rower glides below a grand Colonial mansion and the gaze of an elderly woman. This’ll be Gena Rowlands: the Director’s own mother and a fine actress with a long career in both film and TV, highlighted by the ten films she made with husband John. Her character here, is listening as James Garner reads to her from (cue: drumroll) The Notebook. ‘June 6th, 1940: The day they met. Noah and Allie’. 

A proper movie star of the old school, Garner’s career encompassed everything from classic TV (The Rockford Files and Maverick remain evergreen) to blockbuster movies, in which he could develop his preferred style: that of a charming rogue or anti-hero. Think of his ‘scrounger’ in The Great Escape (1963) or the grit shown by his driver in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) and you’ve a snapshot of his trademark style. Here though, Garner is in a reflective, sombre mood as he reads. Are they married? Friends? In a nursing home? Cassavetes is keeping me guessing: but not for long, as Garner’s voice segues into the film proper: Ryan Gosling is Noah, the subject of The Notebook. In his floppy 1930’s cap and blue-collar, he looks barely old enough to shave but for better or worse, here’s our star…

I like older Gosling more, if I’m honest. The lived-in face of Drive (2011) or Blade Runner 2049 (2017) speaks of a hard-won experience that just isn’t fully-baked here. Still, for all that, he carries himself with a swaggering cockiness, as when he’s vaulting himself up the side of a Ferris Wheel at the country fayre, to pursue Allie, played here by Rachel McAdams: so there’s the first box ticked: jeopardy in the pursuit of love. It works too, as she agrees to see a movie with Noah. Afterwards, walking through the empty streets, he invites her to lay down with him on the road below a set of traffic lights. Ah, so a second box is ticked: Noah is yet to be shown on coming from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, but laying down on the wrong side of the road, just to show your new girl how much of a free spirit you are? It’ll do as a metaphor… Of course, a car then appears, scattering our soon-to-be-lovers, but this just gives them a chance to start ‘Dancing In The Streets’ in predictive homage to Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, who’d be along with the song in another 25 years or so.

It’s a sweet sequence though, as they dance without Cassavetes laying things on with actual music; their ‘rhythm method’ is enough for this glimpse of a ‘silent musical’. The mutual endearment continues once Allie cycles over to Noah’s place to meet his Dad: the mercurial and enigmatic Sam Shepard as Frank Calhoun. A man proud of his son’s accomplishments, Frank reveals how reciting the poems of Walt Whitman cured Noah of stammering, before his coup-de-grace: he decides to make breakfast pancakes at 10pm: a spontaneous act of joyous rebellion that you just know Allie is unused to. The material is making an effort here, to set-up emotional contrasts that will later be challenged: THIS is what living on the wrong side of the tracks looks like in this picture. People enjoy life over here… No wonder that McAdams looks more natural in these scenes. I confess, that I’ve seen very little of her work prior to this, but of the two leads, it’s her and not Gosling who seems the more committed to the project.

GlassesIt doesn’t take long for the villains to emerge, in the form of Allie’s parents. Her father (David Thornton resembling a mid-career Burt Reynolds) is John Hamilton, an easy-going man-of-means, who’s brought his wife and daughter Down South for the Summer. As written, John is the Good Cop of the two, leaving Joan Ellen to play the real villain. Well, I say villain, but what is Anne Hamilton, other than a viperish mother-hen to a daughter who’s showing a dangerous infatuation with a young rascal with raging hormones? 

Ah, those were the days…

As if aware that their affair’s days are numbered, Noah takes Allie out to ‘The Windsor Plantation’: a derelict place he vows to restore someday as their home. With a line like that, what young girl could resist? Certainly not Allie, whose subsequent initiation into the sensual side of life, is rudely interrupted by the cops; mobilised by her frantic mother, who’s hyperventilating on visions of Allie’s wedding reception being the ‘event of the season’ for all the wrong reasons. So, they break up. Summer’s over, in more ways than one.

World War Two makes a nurse of Allie, before she arranges to marry into money, like her mother before her. As for Noah, he’s a broken, fighting man, though his noble suffering is eased by a generous offer from his dad, that will later prove eventful (and, no, it’s not a new razor: Noah’s endearingly shaggy beard looks like it’s here to stay. It says he’s suffered). He may still herald from the wrong side of town, but at least he now looks rougher. Crap is yet to be cleared by both parties, so that box is yet to be ticked, but it’s surely coming, along with a bundle of secrets aching to be revealed.

As it surely does in Act 3, by which time both parties have worked-through their issues and realised that nothing can come between them. Oh, and there’s rowing. Lots of rowing – of the boating kind – through a fairytale bayou filled with white geese, echoing Scene #1. There’s also gratuitous furniture making as a bonus and somewhere in there, a tumultuous reunion amidst a rainstorm, which must’ve been a freezing day on-set.

GlassesThere’s more of course, tying-in Noah & Allie’s story to Duke & Allie’s in the present day, through a plot device that was semaphored way, way back. Whilst it’s clunky and arguably serves no purpose in propelling the narrative, there are bigger problems to contend with here.

The biggest for me, is the film’s pacing, which is leaden. I usually have a generous tolerance for this, being ready to overlook a film’s tempo if it’s still holding my attention. Not here. Everything feels stodgy and static; languid, if you will. Maybe this was deliberate, to better reflect the easy-going nature of The South or maybe Sparks’ novel had leisurely pace, but it left me bored & fidgety.

The film’s tone also wavered, when it came to splitting between the past and present-day sections. When depicted in the past, characters were passionate and demonstrative; driven by their sheer vitality towards sweaty urgency. Counterpoint this, with a present-day scenario in which characters are little more than ciphers for deeper, more intractable issues. To avoid spoilers, I will say only this: what’s more painful: an inability to recall a life well-lived, or living with someone thus afflicted? In the end, I felt ‘Notebook – at least its film adaptation – was careful to remember its purpose as a love story, NOT a social drama, yet that same punch-pulling left this reviewer frustrated over the film’s inability to decide what it wanted to be. Other reviewers might have swallowed the whole fiction, warts and all, but I came away feeling I’d sat through a particularly schmaltzy ‘chick-flick’ that might’ve worked better as a TV movie on the Hallmark Channel; this, despite a fully-formed Liebestod as a finale… 

GlassesWhilst it revels in its sentimentality – and despite being set in South Carolina – the only African-Americans visible are nursing staff, which makes me think that if Sparks had really wanted to mix things up, wouldn’t he have made Noah black? It’s also lacking in jeopardy: everyone’s too nice. Even the wicked Mother melts away in the end, along with Allie’s soporific fiancé, yet where’s the post-WW2 angst a skip-load of novels and films have confidently assured us were the underlying energies of the late Forties?

Nope. Not here. This is a modern fairytale. A touchstone for viewers of a certain age & disposition to turn to, in the absence of anything similar in their own (real) lives and, despite the film’s anodyne timidity, I suspect that both its DVD – and the novel on which it’s based – have pride of place on shelves the world over. Mr Sparks has made a lucrative career out of filling that void, so what do I know? I just tick the boxes…

What do you want? What. Do. You. Want?

THE NOTEBOOK  Triple Word / Score: LANGUID / SYRUPY / COMFORTING / FIVE

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