Keep The Lights On comes to the UK after an incredibly well-received run on the festival circuit and very strong reviews for its US release. So does it live up to the hype that’s suggested this is the gay-themed film of the year? It pretty much does.
There’s been a lot of comparisons between last year’s Brit flick Weekend and Keep The Lights On. There are indeed quite a few similarities between the movies, even if one takes place over two days and the other 10 years. They share a similar tone and style, so that rather than a traditional narrative it’s like peeping in on two gay people’s lives, almost documentary style. They also share the fact that while for years most gay-themed films have centred on issues of identity, both Weekend and Keep The Lights on are about living a gay life once those questions have largely been settled.
The film is about Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Dane living in New York, and his relationship with Paul (Zachary Booth). They meet when Paul is still living a straight life, but what starts as a hook-up develops into an all-consuming passion. However as Paul get ever deeper into drugs, cracks inevitably begin to appear in their relationship. The strains mount until there seems no way forward, but over the course of a decade, Erik finds it difficult to completely sever ties with Paul, who he can’t deny he still loves, despite the fact they may not be good for one another.
It’s not an easy film. In fact the movie’s default state is two people desperately reaching for happiness but looking for it in the wrong places. This inevitably leads to discontent and sorrow. Although that sounds depressing, Keep The Lights On draws you in by ensuring the characters are always understandable. While Paul’s descent into drugs is a well-worn movie path, Erik is more unusual. He’s a very relatable, ordinary man who just wants love and togetherness, and thinks he’s found that with Paul. However when everything starts to go wrong, he can’t completely put the relationship behind him. He wants to help his lover and despite the pain and sorrow Paul’s problems cause, he can’t give up on the hope that they can recapture what they once had, and that Paul can be the person he wants him to be. Indeed it ends up with Erik as addicted to the idea of Paul as Paul is to drugs.
Even those who haven’t had a relationship with a drug addict will find a lot to relate to in Keep The Lights On. Many will know the pain of being in a relationship that’s not working, but where you still love the other person and think if you can just sort a few things out, everything will be okay.
Casual moviegoers may struggle with the film as it doesn’t have the sort of tidy story arc we’re used to. It dips in and out of Erik’s life, things happen that we’re not privy to, and life goes on even if the camera can’t catch every minute of 10 years. The film is based on one of director Ira Sach’s own relationships, and while it’s been fictionalised and the actors allowed to bring their own ideas to the movie, it still has the feel of peeping into the painful, intimate moments of someone else’s life. And like life, there aren’t neat plot points and an obvious set of obstacles that can be neatly overcome for a nice syrupy ending.
It is a heart-breaking film that feels real and will make many ponder the difficulties they’ve faced in their own romantic life, especially if they’ve ever been touched by drugs. There are moments when it all feels a bit too studied and as if it’s repeating itself, but these are minor issues amidst a movie that’s surprisingly moving and feels like it’s getting at a truth that’s rarely dealt with like this on screen. It also helps that Thure Lindhardt gives an absolutely riveting and incredibly open performance as Erik, which really pulls you into his life.
Keep The Lights On may not be a film for the casual moviegoer, who will likely find it difficult to get into due to its lack of easy handles, but for those looking for something a little deeper and more mature, it’s worth seeking out.
Overall Verdict: A grown-up, sad and moving film about the way love can be pulled apart by addiction and the difficulty of moving on. It’s a gay film that’s not about what it means to be gay, but what it is to live a gay life.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac