Addie and Louis don’t exactly have the love affair to end all love affairs planned, except in the sense that they hope it’ll be their last. “I just want to live out my day and then come tell you about it at night,” he offers, one weary Colorado octogenarian to another, and that suits her needs just fine. That line encapsulates the modesty of the drama in “Our Souls at Night,” an anodyne, autumnal adaptation of Kent Haruf’s slender swansong novel: The real conflicts and crises in these lovers’ lives have passed years before, in separate relationships, and it’s their joint attempts to reappraise those that gives Ritesh Batra’s wheaten-hued film much of its poignancy. The rest it owes to the residual low-key chemistry of stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in their fourth screen collaboration; nearly 40 years after “The Electric Horseman,” they resume their partnership as comfortably and as unfussily as slipping into a broken-in pair of high-waisted jeans.
Netflix will be releasing “Our Souls at Night” to its global platform on September 29, mere weeks after its glittery Venice Film Festival premiere. While there’s been much to-do recently over the streaming giant’s spurning of theatrical release models, it’s hard to deny that the small screen may be the most natural fit for Batra’s film, given its pleasantly mollified storytelling and blandly unassuming visual style. Ill-served older audiences seeking gentle entertainment should eat up “Our Souls at Night,” provided they’re already accustomed to the new release model. (Netflix has, after all, already served Fonda rather well with the sitcom “Grace and Frankie.”) There is a certain irony, however, in the web distributing a film in which the characters themselves take a decidedly circumspect attitude to new technology — at least, until smartphones bring the old dogs closer to the possibilities of the late-night “u up?” text.
At the outset, however, it’s an old-fashioned knock on the door that brings mutually widowed Addie (Fonda) and Louis (Redford) together after decades of polite neighbourly nods from their adjacent porches. After shyly inviting herself in, Addie wastes little time with pleasantries: “Would you be interested in coming to my house sometime to sleep with me?” she asks. It’s the most amusingly blunt needle-scratch moment in an otherwise mostly coy film, though Addie means “sleep” more literally than most would in that context: After years of solitary living, it’s the mere closeness of another human being that she misses more than actual sex. With credits including “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber may usually specialize in puppy love, but they’re quite sensitively attuned to the different stakes and priorities of late-life romance.
Louis doesn’t take long to think her proposition over — no one’s getting any younger, after all, and we’ve all seen how fabulous Jane Fonda looks these days — so it isn’t long before he’s sneaking through her back door night after night, as a bemused Addie wonders what they can possibly have to hide in a small town where everybody, sooner or later, knows everybody else’s business. The new lovers certainly know each other’s past family baggage — for Louis, a near-ruinous extramarital affair, and for Addie, the accidental death of her young daughter — but not the attached context or complexities; for both, their increasingly cozy relationship also functions as therapy, each providing a sounding board for the other’s long-silenced reserves of grief and guilt. Meanwhile, when Addie’s troubled son Gene (Matthias Schoenaerts, somewhat oddly cast as an oafish midwesterner) drops off his own seven-year-old boy (Iain Armitage) to stay with grandma for a while, both old-timers get an unexpected second chance, in a sense, at ideal family life.
Fonda and Redford play this potentially sleepy material with spry, generous adroitness, genuinely listening and subtly playing off each other’s reactions and body language. This is hardly the most testing work of their careers, and perhaps neither beautiful icon precisely exudes the true, worn-and-torn spirit of a life lived alone, even when accompanied, in the great suburban middle. But even when “Our Souls” doesn’t require them to dig especially deep, their enjoyment of each other’s onscreen company is warmly palpable, and thus infectious: We share their pleasure in hanging out together, and duly miss them when they miss each other.
Unlike “The Sense of an Ending,” Batra’s other soft-toned study of golden-years regret and redemption released this year, there’s no larger, crueller irony or emotional catharsis to be gained from this subtle accumulation of heartaches — merely the half-smiling assurance that life goes on until, with ultimately little fanfare, it eventually doesn’t. (Haruf’s novel, after all, was all the more touching for being published a year after the American author’s passing.) “Our Souls at Night” is a somewhat less ambitious work altogether than that time-shifting Julian Barnes adaptation, with scarcely a flourish to be found in Stephen Goldblatt’s even-keeled, honey-dipped lensing or John F. Lyons’ strictly functional cutting. Even Eliot Goldenthal’s plaintive acoustic score — his first feature-film work in seven years, the film staging of Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” aside — is surprisingly middle-of-the-road by his standards.
Nevertheless, Batra’s evident affinity for the finer emotional fractures in ordinary lives remains a rare, sweet gift in a filmmaker, even if English-language cinema has yet to hand him a vehicle that conveys it as vibrantly as 2013’s delightful Indian epistolary romance “The Lunchbox.” He knows as well as anyone that Redford and Fonda are the chief reason “Our Souls at Night” has to be, so gives them as much quiet room to breathe as possible. A full half-century after “Barefoot in the Park” set their long-term cinematic affair on much feistier ground, they’ve earned the calm.