What a dream team. Under most circumstances, the news that Robin Wright and Naomi Watts are starring together in a women’s-friendship drama threaded with erotic undertones and taboo desires would send anyone straight to the theater. But “Adore,” a visually lush, utterly lifeless adaptation of a little-known Doris Lessing novella, leaves viewers wanting more, an emotional state very much in keeping with its own affection-starved female characters.
Wright and Watts play Roz and Lil, respectively, lifelong friends who have nurtured their otherworldly bond in a pristine coastal town in Australia. After a brief preamble in which the two cavort and swim as children, and an equally perfunctory sequence in which Lil’s husband is mourned after his death in a car accident, “Adore” gets down to cases several years later, when the two women — now in their 40s and smashingly fit — watch their 19-year old sons surf and loll in the sun with tanned, feral grace. “They’re like gods,” one of the women marvels from the shore.
Watching Roz’s son, Tom (James Frecheville), and Lil’s son, Ian (Xavier Samuel), it’s impossible to disagree, just as it’s impossible not to see the transgressive appeal of the romantic pairings that ensue after a relaxed dinner and a few glasses of wine. Called “The Grandmothers” in Lessing’s version, “Adore” is animated by the forbidden, whether in the form of homosexuality, symbolic incest or simply the sight of a woman over 40 pursuing sexual pleasure. But in the hands of French director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”), what should be an alluring but unsettling provocation instead devolves into soft-core melodrama and on-the-nose literalism.
Don’t blame the actors: “Adore” is bolstered by superb performances, not least from Wright — who in her shattering supporting turns and riveting presence in the Netflix series “House of Cards” is becoming as reliable a force of nature as hurricane season. Watts, as the less headstrong of the two friends, seems more at sea, her apprehension playing across her delicate features with every worried glance. Adapted by the playwright Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Atonement”), the film adheres to Lessing’s own spare, unyielding prose — a framework Fontaine regrettably festoons with vapid beauty shots and longingly pretty gazes.
In more rigorous hands, “Adore” could have been a terrific movie, as haunting in its psychological aftermath as it is intoxicating on the surface. Instead, it settles for looking good and little else. “Adore” at its core is a bore, nothing more.
R. At the Avalon. Contains sexual content and profanity. 100 minutes.