Gloria (Julianne Moore) is in her fifties, divorced and lives alone. A mysterious cat keeps finding its way into her apartment and the guy upstairs seems permanently in the throes of a nervous breakdown.
When Gloria meets Arnold (John Turturro), life suddenly seems exciting and full of possibilities again in the latest from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, an US remake of his own 2013 film. We first meet Gloria in a nightclub, bespectacled and awkwardly looking around for a dance partner. Her bookish demeanour could not look more out-of-place in the neon lights of the club, as she dances distractedly with an array middle-aged would be suitors.
Moore’s usual modus operandi is of exuding magnetic confidence on-screen, so it’s to her utmost credit that she is able to hide that natural charisma beneath layers of quiet self-doubt and subtle, transformative body language. She is almost always in the frame of Lelio’s camera, yet seems to melt in to the background. One evening, she meets Arnold, an enigmatic figure who, spied from across the bar in time-honoured fashion, is not like the other men there. Turturro is not usually cast for his sex appeal, but like Moore, has a magnetism that is difficult to resist. His Arnold is both sincere and mysterious, and so he and Gloria begin a relationship.
He’s clearly infatuated with her, and while Gloria is having a good time too, his intensity and weird spinelessness with his extremely needy adult daughters starts to ring alarm bells. Gloria Bell’s strongest suit is the way the film alchemically creates weaves emotional textures without any obvious change in tone. In an early conversation with Gloria’s friends, Arnold is perfectly friendly but an awkwardness pervades their afternoon get-together. Even a mild difference of opinion on gun control, while never descending into a full-blown disagreement, sows seeds of doubt about Arnold’s ability to socialise with others.
It’s important that Arnold never quite becomes the full-blown psycho that we might expect. Gloria Bell is not a thriller and director Lelio is interested in Gloria’s authentic emotional journey, not artificial drama. The supporting cast is generally excellent – particularly Gloria’s supportive mother (Holland Taylor), herself coming to terms with old age.
But this is Gloria’s story, as a mother, as a daughter and as an imperfect woman in middle age. The film is really a shaggy-dog story – there are no grand betrayals, no buried secrets, no psychological reveals. Instead, Gloria Bell is a sincere and warm portrayal of a normal, sometimes messy woman finding her way through life along with everyone else.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell