Bening, Harris lift ‘Face of Love’ from a contrived, melodramatic plot

From its impossible title to its tortured plot, “The Face of Love” sounds like a good candidate for a “Lifetime Movies That Were Never Actually Made” category. A woman sees her late husband’s exact double, starts a romance without telling the new man about the resemblance, and causes woe to all concerned.

Because — let’s just note this for the record again — she doesn’t tell him about the resemblance. Tortured.

However. While “The Face of Love” might well be a failure because of its delayed-revelation contrivance, there is something in this movie that haunts.

For one thing, the two actors at the center of its story are well above the level of a cable-TV production and visibly eager for this kind of meaty emotional material. Annette Bening plays Nikki, the well-off L.A. widow whose architect husband died in a drowning accident five years earlier; Ed Harris is Tom, an art teacher who indeed looks exactly like the dear departed.

Nikki’s presence re-awakens Tom’s urge to paint (her muse status is too much for the movie to bear), but his reason for falling for her is psychologically acute: Nobody’s ever looked at him the way she does. He doesn’t know why that is, of course, but you can see why this casual narcissist would go for such immediate, unbridled adoration.

As for Bening, it’s a pleasure to see her for a sustained amount of time onscreen. The role allows her to be both foolish and brittle, but Bening locates the sense of loss that must be at the center of Nikki’s decision-making. (Why doesn’t she tell him about the resemblance? Maybe because she’s afraid it will make the magical re-appearance vanish in thin air.)

The writer-director is Arie Posin, whose previous film was the tired suburban satire “The Chumscrubber” (2005); here he works with a narrow gauge and a small cast. Our focus is properly on the central duo, but Robin Williams is on his best behavior as Nikki’s frustrated neighbor/suitor (the role highlights the pissy side of Williams’ screen presence), and Amy Brenneman shows up briefly as Tom’s ex.

“The Face of Love” sounds a faint echo of Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth,” the brilliant 2004 study of a widow who convinces herself that her late husband has come back in the form of a child (a movie due for proper discovery now that Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is garnering accolades). This very flawed movie falls well short of that standard, but is unexpectedly affecting nonetheless.

“The Face of Love” (three stars)

It sounds like a soap opera, but thanks to the efforts of Annette Bening and Ed Harris, this melodrama takes on a genuinely haunting quality. Bening plays a widow who becomes obsessed with a man who exactly resembles the dear departed.

Rating: PG-13, for subject matter

Opening: Friday at Sundance Cinemas Seattle.

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