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Movies: Blue Valentine ***

In the opening scenes of Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, a little girl wanders around an unkempt back garden anxiously calling a pet's name. The family dog has gone missing, and as omens go it's not promising.

The girl is Frankie, only child of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a young couple whose relationship seems to be falling apart. Cindy is a busy nurse at a Pennsylvania hospital, Dean a not particularly driven house painter, and his lack of ambition is only one of the couple's recurring sources of conflict.

In Blue Valentine, we start at the end of a relationship, and having established that Dean and Cindy are in dire trouble, writer/director Cianfrance shifts back in time to show us how it all started. Six years earlier Cindy is tending to her beloved grandmother at a retirement home when she firsts meets Dean. He's a dreamy young man who works for a removals company. He seems gentle and kind, and when Cindy bumps into him he's been hanging pictures for an elderly man who's just moved to the rest home from New York.

For Dean, it's love at first sight and he pursues Cindy with dogged enthusiasm. But things are complicated: she has a thuggish and narrow-minded boyfriend she's known since high school, and when Dean starts wooing her, he endures a severe beating for his trouble. But Dean is not deterred by this, nor by Cindy's judgmental ogre of a father. In one of the film's most riveting scenes, Dean sits at the family table cheerfully admitting that he didn't finish high school and that his father was a janitor. Hardly the catch of the day, then, but when Cindy gets pregnant Dean is supportive, and the die is cast.

Cianfrance's film flits boldly back and forth in time to form a fairly gruelling anatomy of a relationship. His script is unflinchingly and admirably realistic, and there's a terrible inarticulate banality to Dean and Cindy's arguments. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are brave and talented actors: her recent credits include the brilliant Wendy and Lucy, his Lars and the Real Girl. Both are on outstanding form here, but the film they grace is not without its problems.

There's an artificiality to the way Cianfrance constructs his film, and its careful staging can be jarring. The character of Cindy is badly underwritten, and Dean's development just doesn't add up. I know that life takes it out of you, but how did a charming and thoughtful young man turn into a clingy, irritating drunk in a few years? Blue Valentine does a lot of things right, but doesn't quite succeed in pulling off its ambitious plan.

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