Amid its silly contrivances, the romance Words and Pictures manages to tap into middle-age regret, bitterness, and fears that the promise of youth has passed.
The film pairs Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers, he of English and she of art, engaged in a war to determine whether language or images are the finest means of expression. That battle is set at a Maine prep school from which Owen’s charismatic former poet Jack is about to be fired, thanks to an ongoing affair with the bottle, as Binoche’s famed artist Dina arrives on crutches that support an arthritic body that stymies her ability to paint.
Their bickering-but-smitten rapport is destined to lead to love, of course. Yet, beside dreary subplots involving slanderous cartoons and Jack’s drinking, director Fred Schepisi layers its formulaic action with piercing anxiety born from both Jack and Dina’s worry that their best days, as artists and as people, are behind them.
That melancholic edge, as well as Owen and Binoche’s vigorous, battle-scarred performances, prop up Words and Pictures even when its plotting resorts to unbelievable devices, and even though, corroborating Jack’s argument about the primacy of prose, its blandly functional visuals prove a poor complement for its sharply written dialogue.