The Other Woman
Dir: Don Roos
To explore the “other side” of adultery is a delicate cinematic operation, one that requires expert and precise handling of love, loyalty, betrayal and all the other messy emotional components of infidelity. Without such finesse, a movie like The Other Woman would slide hard and fast into the realm of trite chick flicks or maudlin daytime melodramas; fortunately, director Don Roos and titular lead Natalie Portman possess the combined skill, talent and grace to keep their footing throughout the majority of this sad yet softly humorous and ultimately uplifting film.
Portman plays Emilia, the young, second wife of big-shot New York lawyer Jack (Scott Cohen) and step mom to Jack’s smart but pretentious son William (Charlie Tahan). When we first meet Emilia she is rumpled, apathetic and sarcastic — a jaded woman going through the motions of caring for high-maintenance William and surviving the wrath of Jack’s bitter ex-wife Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow) while still struggling in the wake of her own infant daughter Isabel’s sudden death. A series of flashbacks, however, reveals Emilia’s very different beginning as a glossy, ambitious, Harvard-educated associate at Jack’s firm, overcome with attraction to her married boss and happily swept up in a glamorous affair. These scenes are brief, almost too efficient in their sum-up of Emilia and Jack’s romance; but perhaps this is intentional on Roos’ part, as if to eliminate all but the requisite trappings of amorous fantasy so as not to detract from the film’s true purpose. After all, we’ve seen plenty of movies that could have been dubbed Becoming the Other Woman; here, we are meant to examine the aftermath rather than the rosy beginnings – the flipside of infidelity, divorce, and the ensuing consequences.
One of these, of course, is that things don’t always go according to plan. Isabel’s death unhinges Emilia, leaving her bereaved, guilt-ridden, distant and harsh. Robbed of the opportunity to build her own new family, she finds herself alone with a confused, lonely stepson, a beleaguered husband and the memory of her own parents’ broken marriage as the tools with which to re-shape her life. Whether or not she can accept this reality and move forward is a question that persists until the very end of Roos’ film, creating a veritable rollercoaster to test the patience of everyone who loves her and dragging us along in its wake.
This is a jarring experience for the viewer; and Portman, to her dramatic credit, doesn’t ease up on us in the slightest. Equally adept with Emilia’s dry humor (rarely yet brilliantly employed in response to Will’s more ridiculous assertions), anger, determination to remain miserable, manifestations of that misery and even her eventual desperation to make amends, Portman brings a nuanced power to the role that eliminates the option of choosing sides. You see, we must empathize with and dislike Emilia at the same time — condone her reluctance to forget Isabel and cheer her attempts to toughen William up a little even as we bristle at her short-tempered outbursts and cavalier dismissal of William’s safety. Portman binds us to her character’s struggles, refusing to let us look away (no matter how much we may want to). Particularly in light of her own impending marriage and motherhood, Portman’s performance here is all the more poignant, revelatory and touching. And with solid support form Kudrow and Cohen, together with a fantastic foil in Tahan’s William, Natalie Portman steers The Other Woman clear of predictable weepie territory and proves her dramatic versatility yet again. In closing, let me stress this: bring lots of hankies to this flick, and preferably somebody to hug. The Other Woman is worth seeing – but I defy you to stay dry-eyed ’til the end.
by Lauren Westerfield