Based on a 2000 South Korean film called Il Mare, The Lake House is a slowly paced, melancholy romance between two lonely, guarded people–a tough enough sell at any point, but especially difficult in a summer market geared towards blockbusters. The story's time travel elements never quite make sense, but subtle performances and directing give this film an unexpected edge.
The title edifice, a glass box on stilts, sits on a photogenic corner of Lake Michigan. Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) grew up in the house, which was built by his father Simon (Christopher Plummer), an architectural genius incapable of sustaining personal relationships. Alex is now managing the construction of a drab townhouse development, although he dreams of starting his own architecture firm with his brother Henry (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). In the meantime, he is slowly restoring the house, which had been neglected for years.
So Alex is startled to receive letters from the house's previous resident, Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock). She has just moved to Chicago to begin work in a hospital, abandoning an unsatisfying affair with Morgan (Dylan Walsh), a lawyer. Alex and Kate slowly realize that they are communicating over a two-year gap in time. They use their letters first to learn about each other, then to fall in love.
How the two overcome their temporal barrier is never as interesting as how they ended up in such unhappy states. Alex's hesitant efforts to reach out to his unyielding father carry the weight of years of pain. Similarly, Kate's guilt over rejecting Morgan has no real cure. Credit is due to the two stars, who share very little time on screen. In one of their scenes, as Kate describes how her father unwittingly destroyed her dreams, the two display some of the best acting of their careers.
Credit should also go to director Alejandro Agresti, an Argentine transplanted to the Netherlands who is best known here for Valentin (2002). Agresti manages to keep a mood of loss and sorrow more nuanced and polished than Il Mare. Similarly, David Auburn's spare script maintains its tone of death and second chances even as characters are left dangling and the plot is veering into the absurd. (While I'm throwing credit around, didn't anyone at Warners notice that this plot was essentially lifted from Jack Finney's short story–and subsequent 1998 Hallmark film–The Love Letter?)
The Lake House isn't a total success. Some of the performers are too broad, notably a struggling Ebon Moss-Bachrach, while Shohreh Aghdashloo has little to do except perfect her Melina Mercouri rasp. Rachel Portman's exquisite score is compromised by intrusive pop chestnuts like Carole King's "It's Too Late." References to Jane Austen's Persuasion (as well as to a dozen or so film romances) seem miscalculated. Still, as the seasons pass and time twists around on itself, the film builds a powerful, if somber, emotional spell.
Cast and credits
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dylan Walsh, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Lynn Collins, Willeke Van Ammelrooy, Christopher Plummer.
Credits: Directed by Alejandro Agresti. Screenplay by David Auburn. Based on the motion picture Il Mare, produced by Sidus. Produced by Doug Davison, Roy Lee. Executive producers: Mary McLaglen, Erwin Stoff, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman. Director of photography: Alar Kivilo. Production designer: Nathan Crowley. Edited by Lynzee Klingman, Alejandro Brodersohn. Music by Rachel Portman. Costume designer: Deena Appel. Co-producer: Sonny Mallhi. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Vertigo Entertainment production.