Loving Adults is visually impressive and sporadically interesting, but sacrifices the necessary character depth for this type of film at the altar of melodramatic plot construction.
Danish director Barbara Topsøe-Rothenborg’s latest film, Loving Adults, adapts Anna Ekberg’s romantic psychodrama of the same name published in 2017. The film is Netflix’s first-ever Danish-language original feature, part of the service’s joint project with SF Studios to provide an expanded Nordic film slate. It’s hard to cast the cynicism aside when trawling industry news aggregators and not see releases like these as much more than strategically bundled batches of content, foot soldiers in the streaming giant’s perpetual quest for brand extension. Surely some good art and good entertainment will come out of these partnerships. But judging from what Loving Adults offers up, either the wait must continue or we should be prepared to get cozy while settling for less. Starring Sonja Richter and Dar Salim, Loving Adults is far from offensively bad — flagrantly middling would be more accurate. Engaged leading performances and a sharp visual style aren’t enough to elevate this movie above its otherwise unremarkable approach.
Christian (Salim) and Leonora (Richter) bear the trappings of the affluent, stable family life most long-time couples fantasize about. Yet it’s immediately clear that their relationship is built on active fault lines of mistrust. A four-in-the-morning text prompts Leonora to suspect that Christian may be having an affair, which she responds to aggressively. Later, she confirms he is cheating on her with Xenia (Sus Wilkins), a younger architect he employs. Leonora threatens to expose him for past fraud he committed to finance their son’s expensive medical procedures if he doesn’t dump Xenia. Afraid of jail time but too smitten with Xenia, Christian chooses a nuclear option, causing a chain of events that embroils everybody in violence.
When asked what she would say her film is about, Topsøe-Rothenborg described it as a film “about what terrible things we men and women can end up doing to each other, if pushed too far.” Central ideas include “the very thin line between love and hate” and “jealousy and bitterness… bring[ing] out the worst in all of us.” Loving Adults, though, has little to say about any of these ideas, content to simply let the audience know that these were things broadly on the screenwriters’ minds. Such is the trouble when a film falls into the trap of sacrificing character depth at the altar of plot construction, focused more on setting up twists and payoffs than giving us characters that are compelling beyond the scenes when they are screaming or gesticulating demonstratively. You can boil Christian and Leonora down to “morose, mid-life crisis man” and “spurned woman” and fill in much of the rest from whatever daytime soap opera or airport thriller you last came across. Any novel qualities are held at bay until the script wants a juicy reveal, a wow moment to briefly infuse the film with a pulse before it settles back into coasting along. Loving Adults could have further explored how profound fears of intimacy and honesty can lead decent but flawed people to catastrophize unhealthily. What we get, rather, are two “protagonists,” one pathetically immature, the other hammily unhinged, acting not out of love but a childish desire to unilaterally control their own reality. That we never actually see this husband-wife duo express genuine affection for one another withholds a baseline for the romance, sapping their dynamic of the love and passion that’s supposedly being put to the test. The winding thrills of the plot are king here, and a couple of good twists aren’t enough to make a good movie.
That’s not to say Loving Adults is entirely without other strengths. Richter and Salim do the best they can with the material, particularly Richter, who possesses the range to pull off sympathetic victim in one moment and femme fatale in the next. She burns hot while Salim plays Christian with a reserved, vulnerable mousiness that provides abundant opportunities for subtle facial and vocal choices to reflect his ever-present dread and regret. Though, it can be hard to remember the power of these quieter moments when the film decides to crank things up to full-on melodrama. Topsøe-Rothenberg likewise succeeds in crafting a vaguely arthouse gloss for her film, with Philippe Kress’ cinematography responsible for some honestly superb compositions. Many scenes are staged within immaculately arranged interiors and against the backdrops of architectural splendor. It’s efficient, clinically stylish, and so very Nordic, roundly impressive until the realization sets in that it achieves little more than lending a mediocre streaming movie some visual dignity. Other choices put Loving Adults in squarely corny territory: case in point, several of the frankly baffling sound design choices (not knowing any better, some of the music and effects sound like they may as well have been ripped from iMovie). By the film’s end, all of these elements, positive and negative, coalesce into something that feels momentarily interesting throughout but still less than the sum of its parts. Casual genre fans will have enough to chew on, but it’s disappointing that the bar wasn’t set higher.
You can currently stream Barbara Topsøe-Rothenborg’s Loving Adults on Netflix.