Made before Michael Winterbottom’s recent Cannes competer, “Wonderland,” “With or Without You” is a small-scale but extremely likable triangular romance. Anchored by a trio of beautiful performances and by its Belfast setting, pic is perhaps too slight to make much of a mark theatrically, but it should play well on the tube and decently in other ancillaries.
John Forte’s screenplay (originally, and rather more attractively, titled “Old New Borrowed Blue,” film’s working title) deals with the basics of life — romantic yearnings, marriage, the need to procreate, infidelity, the sense of time slipping by. These everyday themes are freshly explored, and viewers in their 30s and 40s are likely to identify strongly with the characters.
Vincent (Christopher Eccleston), an ex-cop, and Rosie (Dervla Kirwan) have been together for 10 years. Having changed careers at her request when they married, he works, none too happily, in her father’s window-repair business, while she holds down a job as receptionist at an arts center. They’re happy enough, but there’s something missing: They both desperately want a baby. Despite medical consultations and plenty of sex, nothing seems to be happening.
At this point, Benoit (Yvan Attal) unexpectedly shows up from France. Years earlier, he’d been Rosie’s pen pal, and though they never met, they’d fallen in love, in a naive way, via their ardent letters. The correspondence stopped when Rosie met Vincent and Benoit met the woman he married. Now, Benoit’s marriage is over, he’s lost his job, and he’s come to Belfast looking for his first love.
Benoit moves into the couple’s spare room and shows no sign of leaving. Rosie finds him charming and attentive; he’s kept all her letters. Vincent reacts by getting a bit churlish, and when his former flame, seductive hairdresser Cathy (Julie Graham) beckons, he hardly hesitates. The marriage seems to be falling apart.
Setting him apart from other Brit helmers, Winterbottom’s films often have been suffused with a distinctly European sensibility. “With or Without You” shows more than a touch of early Truffaut (“Jules and Jim” inevitably comes to mind, though the two films are quite different in tone and style). He uses split screen and even old-fashioned irises for emphasis and punctuation, and handles the material with freshness and vitality, keeping the viewer attracted even when the screenplay is developing along familiar lines.
Helmer also creates an impressively real background for the love story. The streets and cityscapes of Belfast are well utilized, and minor characters effectively employed to flesh out Vincent and Rosie, especially Vincent’s policemen buddies and the members of Rosie’s bickering family (Protestants all — the religious and political subtext is present for those who want to latch on to it).
The ending’s rather too conventional, though perhaps true to life, but otherwise pic coasts effortlessly along on its humor, honesty and the charm of its players. Eccleston, who had the lead in Winterbottom’s “Jude,” depicts all the nuances of the affectionate but frustrated Vincent, Attal radiates French charm as the interloping Benoit, and Kirwan is radiant as the torn-between-two-lovers Rosie. Also noteworthy are Alun Armstrong, as Rosie’s no-nonsense dad and Graham as Vincent’s still ardent ex. Production values are polished in every department.