Possibly one of Paul Cox’s most benign, straight-forward films, Lonely Hearts (1982) is the modest tale of two unlikely prospective partners and their pursuit of something substantial to fill the gaping void in their personal lives. Distinguished by its tender honesty, the screenplay by Cox and John Clarke has no qualms about exposing the embarrassment inherent in confronting the opposite sex armed with only a minimum of knowledge about what makes them tick. Deftly, the complicated realities of social intercourse are reduced to easily relatable conflicts with all their stifling inhibitions and mild neuroses opened like raw wounds for our entertainment.
Peter (Norman Kaye), a lonely middle-aged piano tuner with a loyal dachshund and a discreetly positioned toupee, has just lost his mother. Faced with the daunting prospect of filling the emptiness created by her death he turns his attention to a dating agency who has contacted him with a potential match. He’s pleasantly surprised to learn that Patricia (Wendy Hughes) is a significantly younger woman than the ideal he’s always had in mind.
The scepticism secretly shared by the pair about any future prospects is matched only by their general ineptness at relating to fellow human beings. Both are shy, internal characters and their awkward early dates are painful to watch but in a funny nostalgic way. Let’s be honest – who hasn’t lived moments like these, prodding openings in the nearly non-existent conversation only to exacerbate matters by saying something utterly stupid? Rather than banishing the embarrassment, their trivial non-sequiturs only underline the divide between reality and the wishful thoughts clumsily banging around in their heads. Inevitably they find do some common ground, and curiosity piqued, move onward with hesitant, fearful steps into a kind of calamitous sense of the unknown that their almost reluctant contact has manufactured.
Peter finds solace and an outlet for his emotional containment in a local theatre group and in some of the film’s more entertaining scenes there’s a flamboyant supporting role for the larger than life Jon Finlayson as George, the theatre director who does his utmost to point the fumbling duo in the right direction. There’s able support from Julia Blake too as Peter’s nagging sister who it seems, is more disappointed than anyone in his solitary, cloistered lifestyle.
Naturally Hughes is the star of the show and a treat to watch, deconstructing her aesthetic beauty for the dowdy, straight-laced Patricia, a repressed and inhibited creature of habit. It’s quite a transformation for a woman as gorgeous as she was at the time, assuming the mind-set of a fragile creature whose aversion to contact with the opposite sex is finally overtaken by a more basic need for a companion in life.
Kaye is equally good, revealing a delicate touch as the slightly odd but empathetic Peter; in one particularly funny scene he turns up for a piano-tuning appointment pretending to be blind, an unnecessary and outlandish eccentricity perhaps, but an endearing one like many of his qualities. Even when he oversteps the mark a little too far in his exuberance at the chance to take Patricia, finally, to bed, we find ourselves forgiving him. Here, the culmination of their courting seems headed for such perfectly natural progress, but of course Patricia’s sexual inhibition rears its prominant head in the nick of time to save the couple from regretting a roll in the hay before they’re truly ready. It’s a delicate balance this pair is trying to strike and Cox’s affection for his creations is borne out with every motivation and reaction attributed to them.
It gets to the point where you fear the couple are eternally destined to be their own worst enemies, and Patricia’s stuck-up parents (Vic Gordon and Irene Inescort), who’ve obviously kept a tight rein on their daughter through very unsubtle manipulation, only make progress all the more difficult. But in the end, stripped down to the simplicity of needing companionship despite the odds against them finding it, this unlikely couple discover they’re prepared to grapple with destiny a little longer and push all barriers aside. It culminates in a fitting final scene that plays out like a perfect, fated first meeting repeated again, only this time filled with innocent wonder.
Lonely Hearts has stood the test of time well, remaining one of the late Paul Cox’s most enjoyable works, and a timely reminder of how his refreshingly honest examinations of the human condition need not always be remembered as bleak, morose ones. On a limited budget, but the simple mechanics of solid, humanistic writing as his most fundamental tool, he created cinematic magic yet again.