Set in 1818 something evil is going on in the Bell’s family house. The trouble begins after a land deal John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) are involved in goes awry. She blames John for her misfortunes and curses his whole family. Townsfolk think Batts practices witchcraft and when it turns out she has kept pieces of their clothing suspicion rises even more. A religious leader (Matthew Marsh) and the local schoolteacher (James D'Arcy) set out to figure out the truth but have very different ideas about what is causing the nightmares and possession of young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). But when Betsy's nightmares get more intense and violent--when Bible pages fly out of the book and Betsy gets dragged hair-first up the stairs in front of them all--the family matriarch Lucy (Sissy Spacek) sternly asks "Now are we all just having nightmares Professor?" Veteran talents Sutherland and Spacek have some of the scariest movies ever on their resumes. Sutherland was plenty creepy in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake while Spacek got her first Oscar nomination as Carrie. Even if there isn't much to say these two easily convey a lot of emotion fear and empathy with just a side glance or a raised eyebrow. The movie however wouldn't work without a beautiful innocent girl. Hurd-Wood is as magical in this gritty role as she was as Wendy Darling in the recent live-action Peter Pan. Her looks of horror and violation seem as real as if they were actually happening. The few people who saw the Exorcist prequel may recognize D'Arcy as the priest in it and his role is just as aloof and emotionless. He's a fine British actor and accomplishes a decent Southern accent but he comes across like a Brit who is stuck in a Southern town and frankly he is. Writer/director Courtney Solomon certainly knows how to weave a nice yarn. He's taken an old legend that was apparently witnessed by Andrew Jackson (before he became president) and tells it as if he was sitting around a campfire and spinning a great spooky story. A previous version of the film made it through the festival circuits about a year ago but had a very different ending. It’s the version playing in England right now actually. But with the American release Solomon took some advice and made some adjustments. Framed within a modern-day family living in the Bell house which flashes back to the period story its a gothic ghost story that doesn't jump out at you but instead seeps into your bones and chills you from within. And there’s nothing gross or offensive about it.
Based on the bestseller by Nicolas Sparks the film begins with Duke (James Garner) and Allie (Gena Rowlands) an inseparable couple living in a nursing home. While Duke remembers their life together Allie who suffers from progressive dementia does not. Their only bond is a faded notebook from which Duke reads to Allie every day telling her the same story over and over. It's a sweeping tale of two South Carolina teens country boy Noah (Ryan Gosling) and city gal Allie (Rachel McAdams) who spend one glorious summer in the early 1940s falling madly in love. Unfortunately the couple is soon separated first by her disapproving parents and then by World War II but after seven years apart after taking different paths they are passionately reunited. There's a catch though; Allie is now faced to choose between the man she once loved and the successful businessman (James Marsden) she is engaged to. It's really no surprise who the young Allie chooses in the end--but for Duke the only thing that keeps him going is the fact that every day somehow through the power of this story the mentally impaired Allie miraculously remembers their love if only for a very brief moment before slipping back into oblivion. Tears being jerked from your eyes yet?
The talented cast certainly elevates The Notebook's romantic drudgery. McAdams takes a departure from all the Mean Girls she's played lately (including The Hot Chick) and easily wins you over as the spirited young Allie while the usually intense Gosling also tackles something lighter so to speak than his previous darker roles such as his Jewish-turned-American Nazi leader in The Believer. While infusing a certain sense of brooding and melancholy into Noah especially in the years he spends pining for Allie Gosling manages to exude Noah's genuine warmth and sensitivity as well. And between the two of them real sparks fly as the actors paint a fresh and inviting picture of young love that stands the test of time. Marsden is completely wasted however as Allie's fiancé Lon a upstanding Southern gentleman Allie's parents expect her to marry who offers little as to why Allie should stay with him. As the older contingency veterans Garner and Rowlands who take the sappiest material and turn it into something meaningful inspire some truly heart-ripping moments as the aging couple holding onto their love as tight as they can. In the supporting cast Joan Allen has some shining moments as Allie's uptight mother with a secret of her own.
In bringing the popular novel about enduring love to life director Nick Cassavetes (Unhook the Stars) may have used his own experiences having seen his parents--the late John Cassavetes and his lady love and muse Gena Rowlands--play out their own real-life love affair. Cassavettes gets to the heart of the material right away and permeates the screen with the beautiful surroundings of South Carolina where The Notebook was filmed. We glide through lush moss-filled swamps and sleepy Southern towns marvel at languid shots of the South Carolina coastline. It's very clear Cassavetes has a way with actors much like his father did gently coaxing realistic performances from his young somewhat untested leads while allowing old guards like Garner and Rowlands to simply work their magic (imagine telling your Oscar-nominated mother how to act. Right). The problem is the story itself which not only offers nothing new to the romance genre but also isn't very compelling. There are no great tragedies (save perhaps for the whole dementia thing) no real villainous presence to keep the lovers apart no peril at all. It's boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl boy-wins-girl-back--ho-hum. Where's the sudsy soap opera when you need it?