Narrowing his focus to one virtually free-standing section of John Irving’s sprawling novel, “A Widow for One Year,” writer-director Tod Williams may have radically altered the perspective of the book but arguably has made a film truer to the author’s perennial concerns than any of the previous, uneven adaptations of his work. A thoughtful, melancholy story of love, loss, pain, betrayal and the lingering after-effects of tragedy, “The Door in the Floor” is an intelligent, impeccably acted, unsentimental drama whose adult themes should resonate strongly with critics and discerning audiences, women in particular.
Irving’s 1998 bestseller was told over three separate periods that each represent a critical time in the life of its protagonist, Ruth Cole, a successful writer but a difficult woman with an unfulfilling personal life. Williams’ film concentrates solely on the book’s meatiest part, set during summer 1958 on Long Island, which recounts the breakup of 4-year-old Ruth’s parents. While admirers of the novel may feel cheated that Ruth has become a more marginal figure, the story here feels fully autonomous and faithfully reproduces the spirit, emotional candor and vivid character description of Irving’s work.
Updated to the present, the drama takes its title from a book penned by Ruth’s father Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a celebrated children’s author and illustrator. The horror movie connotations fit both with the main drama’s climate of understated dread and the story in question, about an unborn child and his mother whose cabin home has a trapdoor leading to unknown evils and dangers.
Sixteen-year-old Eddie (Jon Foster) moves into the Coles’ house in an East Hampton beach community during his summer break from Exeter to work as a writer’s assistant to Ted. His arrival comes during a period of deep strain in Ted’s marriage to Marion (Kim Basinger).
Unable to shake off losing their two teenage sons, Marion also is unable to be a mother to their surviving daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), born after the auto accident that killed her brothers. The specter of the dead boys hangs heavily over the house in dozens of framed photographs, each one containing a backstory Ruth insists on hearing over and over again.
Eddie is unsuccessful in concealing his intense desire for Marion, his attentions and proximity in age to her sons sparking both sexual and maternal feelings in the unhappy woman. They begin a passionate sexual relationship of which Ted is tacitly aware.
Meanwhile, Ted continues seeing Mrs. Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), the latest in a long line of affairs that begin with slow seduction as the women sit for increasingly graphic nude portraits.
From his coolly detached yet compassionate viewpoint, writer-director Williams (“The Adventures of Sebastian Cole”) observes the events leading to Marion’s departure, remaining staunchly non-judgmental of the unorthodox relationship between the woman and Eddie. This aspect also is well served by the matter-of-fact presentation of their sex scenes. With subtlety and economy, the film charts the emotional interplay between the characters, quietly registering Ted’s relief to see some degree of happiness in Marion and her acknowledgment to herself that her husband is more able than she is to be a loving parent to Ruth.
The story’s conflicts are coaxed to their climaxes with measured strokes, as hopelessly lovestruck Eddie comes to realize he’s being used by both Marion and Ted in different ways. The drama veers into more volatile territory only in the messy meltdown of Ted’s relationship with Mrs. Vaughn. But this also is played down with a light, sardonic touch.
Looking weathered and careworn yet still handsome and effortlessly charming as befits his character, Bridges does his best work in years. Seemingly self-effacing yet self-absorbed and full of the sense of entitlement common to creative artists, Ted is a feckless man on many levels yet never entirely unsympathetic thanks to the actor’s richly humanizing performance. Stripped of vanity — and of clothing in several scenes — Bridges is unafraid to embrace the character’s flaws.
Playing a woman whose beauty and grace seem irreconcilably at odds with her deep sorrow and almost catatonic hollowness, Basinger manages to be moving without obvious shows of emotion. She deftly walks a fine line in Marion’s affair with Eddie, which could easily have teetered into crude awkwardness.
Relative newcomer Foster slightly undersells the boy’s transporting passion for Mrs. Cole but is effective in tracing Eddie’s path from being an unworldly, trusting open book to a bruised young man of surprisingly strong character. His transition from admiration to disdain for Ted is especially well drawn in their terrific scenes together. Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) also impresses as a curious, questioning child with an old soul, played without affectation or cuteness. And Rogers sharply etches a bitter woman pushed to irrational extremes.
Polished without being unduly glossy or slick, the film is elegantly shot in widescreen by Terry Stacey in soft summer light and a limber camera style and graced by Marcelo Zarvos’ unintrusive score. Most notable among the craft contributions is Therese DePrez’s carefully considered production design, from the Coles’ large, unpretentious cottage to the oddly transplanted-looking rustic barn where Ted plays squash to Mrs. Vaughn’s ostentatious modern mansion, as hard-edged and uninviting as its owner.