There is no doubt couples have swirled to some very high and very low times at Roseland, since Lou and Dorothy Brecker opened the cavernous, dance hall in New York in 1919. But what you see in "Roseland," the film directed by James Ivory from a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay, is mostly the sadness and faded dreams of dancers who look like they were around the day the doors first opened.
Ivory effectively uses three romantic vignettes, filmed in almost pseudo-documentary style, to explore the life and times of Roseland customers. Purportedly based on true stories, the sequences were shot almost entirely inside a darkened Roseland, and the effect is similar to taking an old coat out of mothballs; you can almost smell the past. The dancers oil up the old joints to waltz, samba and peabody about the pine floor to swing era tunes and the blow-dry enthusiasm of the Roseland's actual emcee, Don De Natale.
The dialogue is realistic, if sometimes trite, because that's the way real people speak. But the effect is more surreal than documentary.
It is here, at Roseland, that May (Teresa Wright), an old lady with a light step, chases the memory of her late husband in the mirrors. Stand (Lou Jacobi), a cheery oldster, introduces May to brandy alexanders and steers her away from the past.
Others are not so fortunate. Pauline (Joan Copeland), a wealthy, middle-aged widow is only able to face her inevitable mortality with the purchased affection of a young gigolo, Russell (Christopher Walkens), and champagne shared with Roseland pals: wily dance teacher Cleo (Helen Gallagher) and a naive divorce named Marilyn (Geraldine Chaplin). The bittersweet sequence - Marilyn and Cleo both failing to snap Russell off his gold Cartier leash - only serves to underscore the sadness of dreamers locked in the final steps of a death march.
In the final vignette of dusty romance, Rosa (Lilia skala), a former Schrafft's cook who fashions herself as a dance hall duchess, chases after the peabody prize with a creaky old partner named Arthur (David Thomas). Arthur keeps pestering Rosa to marry him. But, like the others at Roseland, she only manages to snatch fleeting happiness from the march of time.