If Laurence Olivier calls an actress ‚The next Grace Kelly‘, then the actress in question must truly be a unique combination of charm, grace (no pun intended) and talent. And if that actress in question is only 13 years old, then it’s clear that she must possess a very special aura and appeal to let one of the greatest and most respected actors of the 20th century become such an instant admirer. Yes, Diane Lane was surely off to a great start. After her film debut opposite Olivier in A Little Romance, she was one of the main young stars destined to become an instant hit with critics and audiences alike. But careers very seldom go as planned and while Diane Lane did create a sensation very early in her life, she gradually began to disappear and basically became ‘another actress’, doing steady work, sometimes a success, sometimes a failure, but never truly putting her back in the spotlight. And so it’s both surprising and wonderful that of all possible movie roles, it was the one of a cheating housewife in a standard erotic thriller that brought her the long-awaited critical attention and resulted in her first Oscar nomination. After all, nominations for those kinds of roles aren’t the easiest to get, especially if the movie itself is met with mostly mixed or even negative reviews. Of course, being the standout in a rather weak movie can also help a performer to gain attention – Meryl Streep has been receiving Oscar nominations this way more than once by now. But Meryl Streep is…well, Meryl Streep – awards attention for her almost always begins even before the movie is finished. For other actresses, Oscar nominations don’t come so easy. So, Diane Lane had the advantage of being the most praised aspect of a panned erotic thriller which was also her biggest disadvantage since Academy members are not truly known for awarding actresses for these kinds of roles in these kinds of movies. So, it would not help Diane Lane to just be the best thing in an average movie – instead, she had to carry herself to a higher level of excellence, not only standing out but becoming the main reason why Unfaithful succeeded despites its weaknesses and providing it with more than just a standard repertoire of lust, guilt and tears but a believable and authentic presentation of a woman torn apart by her own actions, desires, wishes and regrets. Did she succeed? Well, the critics certainly thought so. When the New York Film Critics gave 5 accolades to Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven but then ignored the most praised aspect of this film – Julianne Moore’s central performance as a woman dealing with the dissolution of her perfect life – in favor of Diane Lane, it became clear that her work hit a nerve. In the end, she was not able to overcome Nicole Kidman’s even bigger success story the same year and, looking back on it, was not truly able to turn her Oscar nomination into a career revival but Unfaithful did, 31 years after the begin of her acting career on a small stage in New York, turn her into an Academy Award nominated actress and finally created a full circle to the upcoming and exciting young actress of the early 80s.
As mentioned a couple of time by now, Unfaithful is neither a great movie nor a good movie. It strings together various clichés that this genre has seen countless times before it suddenly drops the eroticism and exchanges it with crime – but its biggest problem is the simple fact that, for a movie with such problems around almost every corner, it takes itself far too seriously. There are many moments in Unfaithful that make me roll my eyes – basically every time Oliver Martinez or Richard Gere appear on the screen – and while all these flaws prevent Unfaithful from becoming a great film it still remains strangely watchable – thanks to Diane Lane who truly sank her teeth into a role that could have easily come across as a thin stereotype but turned into a strangely fascinating character study thanks to her earthy and honest portrayal. But even though, Unfaithful never truly feels like a ‘one woman show’ despite the fact that it clearly is. This is thanks to Diane Lane’s haunting restraint in a role that usually would have invited a lot of actresses to a collection of scene-stealing and scenery-chewing tricks – something that might have seemed like the most logical and maybe even only solution since the part of Connie is not necessarily better written than anything else in Unfaithful – but Diane Lane somehow discovered potential in a role that lacks it on paper and took the opportunity to carry the story and give reason to a character that was written without any.
But even with all this early praise, it has to be stated that Diane Lane only succeeds in parts – because she cannot always overcome the limitations that are put upon her by her own movie. Connie Sumner may be the central character of Unfaithful but she never truly develops her own point of view or seems responsible for her own actions. She is a movie character that makes the structure of the screenplay palpable at every moment and she always seems to act in a certain way because the screenplay asks her to – nothing she does appears at it if came by her own decision. Of course, every movie character develops and acts in a way the screenplay wants him or her to but Unfaithful never feels like a genuine story but always poorly constructed and obviously designed to move the plot in a certain direction. Diane Lane was not fully able to overcome these obstacles and fails to craft Connie as an independent creation who is driven by her own instincts and wishes. But where she does succeed is by giving Connie an inner life nonetheless – an inner life that is not only dominated by her lust for Paul but also by her own intelligence. It’s probably the biggest accomplishment by Diane Lane that she was able to show that Connie is not controlled by her desires but always knows what she is doing and why, no matter how much she wants to resist herself. Connie Sumner could easily have been portrayed as a purely emotional woman who is never her own master, especially considering the aforementioned structure of Unfaithful which always pushes her in any way the screenplay needs, but Diane Lane somehow managed to let Connie appear ‘smarter than she really is’ nonetheless.
Besides this, Diane Lane found an extremely appealing way to bring this largely unappealing woman to live because even if the screenplay constantly holds its tight arms around Connie without letting her feel like a natural creation, Diane Lane still appears as spontaneous, natural and real as possible. Unfaithful and Connie Sumner are not well written and Diane Lane gets various standards moments that include the hidden attraction, the fiery passion and the unavoidable guilt but she presents all these moments with a believable, natural, fresh and genuine acting style. Because when all the obstacles are mentioned and overcome, Diane Lane comes out at the top of Unfaithful with a mature and intriguing performance that is intelligent, erotic, quiet, wild and a wonderful display of an actress not only overcoming countless difficulties that are thrown in her way but also doing it without ever appearing to be trying at all – instead, she feels very ‘in the moment’ and if Unfaithful never lets Connie Sumner feel like an authentic woman, then Diane Lane’s performance surely does. It’s a constant fight of a dedicated performer against a movie that does its best to hold her back and Diane Lane may not always win her battles with a perfect score – but the final balance is certainly in her favor.
What is probably the most interesting aspect of Unfaithful is the complete randomness of the affair between Connie and Paul. It’s easy to dismiss this aspect since there are no apparent reasons for Connie’s actions and also because even her first encounter with Paul is completely by accident. Nothing in the life of Connie Sumner suggested this passionate affair with a young man and so Diane Lane had to work hard to make all of Connie’s doings believable – which she does. From her first enchantment by this man’s charm to her self-doubt while visiting him again, her hesitation when she picks up the phone and finally to her self-realization that she is willing to start an affair with him. Diane Lane impresses with a portrayal that never loses its plausibility even when the screenplay does. Unfaithful does not only often hold Diane Lane back but also delivers the message that Connie’s affair is somehow more deserving of punishment than the crime of her husband. Diane Lane does her best to show how Connie is torn apart between her loyalty to her husband and her fear of this unknown, dark side in him but her confrontation scene in which her husband is apparently seen as the more justified side is too misjudged for her to find any credibility. Still, Diane Lane constantly guides Unfaithful as its emotional and intellectual anchor – she creates the tension in Unfaithful when she finds out how much her husband actually knew about her affair, she adds an unexpected amount of sorrow and pain as she realizes that she cannot go on like this anymore and she even feels honest and touching after she learns about Paul’s fate. Diane Lane may express mostly standard emotions for a movie like this but she does so with a gripping intensity that never comes from any over-expressing but rather from a strong, internal display which allows her to not only carry Unfaithful but give it a moral dimension beneath the high-polished sex scenes. Especially her scene on the train after her first sexual encounter with Paul is often mentioned as her brightest moment as she is allowed to display a wide variety of emotions from guilt and enjoyment to self-mockery, desperation and pleasure in just a few moments but the editing is working against her as the almost never-ending display of different emotions is, even though gripping from a technical point of view, too much too sudden. Much more interesting are the intervened scenes of her first sex with Paul as she beautifully demonstrates Connie’s fear, anxiety and anger at herself and Paul for crossing this line while also showing how much Connie is enjoying this moment and lets Connie’s body shiver with a combination of lust and fear. And when she later cries in her kitchen, she does never appear like a woman training to gain any sympathy but instead like a real woman finding herself in a hopeless situation – hopeless because she lacks the power to change it.
With her performance, Diane Lane manages to draw the viewer very close to Connie’s personal experiences. She displays both a wild lust and a sense of self-doubt in all her sexual encounters with Paul and it’s almost shocking how she manages to believably portray her desire for Paul while hating herself more and more during their scene in the hallway. Despite Diane Lane’s earthiness and strong screen presence her Connie often seems almost fragile, collapsing inside from the pressure she has put upon herself. It’s a performance in which Diane Lane is allowed to run the gamut of emotions from A to Z and she does it as impressively as anybody could under the circumstances. She is hold back by her movie very often and cannot fight against being ungratefully pushed aside in the final third of the movie but she still leaves a lasting impression with a passionate, willing and uncompromising performance that receives