Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) is a young graduate student writing her thesis on Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), an acclaimed novelist in his twilight years. When she visits him in person to request a series of personal interviews, Schiller politely turns her away. Later, however, Schiller comes across one of Heather’s pieces in a literary journal. He is intrigued. He invites her to come by once a week to discuss his work, so long as she doesn’t interfere with his work time; Schiller is writing another novel, and fears he may not live to complete it.
That’s the setup for a complex meeting of minds (and perhaps bodies) that reveals depths of these characters I’m almost positive no other pair of actors could pull off, at least not as delicately. Heather’s near-worship of Leonard is almost frightening, but her eagerness fades as she struggles to reconcile the literature that has changed her life with the man who disappoints her even as she pulls him closer. Meanwhile, Leonard gradually accepts Heather’s increasing presence in his life, never certain of her status as potential friend, lover, or daughter.
Leonard remains close with his actual daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a 40-year-old yoga instructor facing a rekindled romance with Casey (Adrian Lester), who abruptly left her 5 years ago. Something about Taylor has never convinced me before, but here she stands out as a woman essentially deciding if her happiness is worth the cost of her happiness.
But this movie 100% belongs to Langella and Ambrose. Their relationship crosses the line of propriety so quickly, it may take you some time to realize you didn’t even hesitate to follow them. To what extent did Heather invade Leonard’s life, and to what extent did he facilitate her invasion? Who is responsible for what happens next? What does this really have to do with literature? Indeed, literature itself — its origins, its effects, its cost — is an incredibly powerful presence in the film.
This all seems pretty vague, but that’s everything you need to know. Each and every scene is truly a surprise (and sometimes a shock). Ambrose’s performance is one of the best by any actress her age, ever, as Heather learns she may be exactly as naïve and selfish as she fiercely believed she wasn’t. Langella’s Leonard is pitch perfect as an imperfect man whose life is changed forever by this tumultuous relationship.
In short, I couldn’t recommend this movie more!