R.I.P. James Garner. I loved him as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he won my heart as Duke in The Notebook. Duke is the epitome of the faithful husband. Garner’s nuanced performance makes profound lines that could have come across as maudlin or trite completely relatable.
The film begins at a nursing home as the elderly Duke reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman patient. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Allie doesn’t know Duke is her husband and has no memory of their life together. The love story that Duke reads sometimes seems vaguely familiar to her. As Duke reads the film flashes back to the action in the story.
SPOIILER ALERT: (Do yourself a favor and see The Notebook. Even if you are a guy. Not only the acting really fine, the directing and cinematography is amazing. The repetitive use of water and birds as motifs is masterful. And the romance is far deeper than your average Rom Com. It’s about the stuff that happens after happily ever after that defines real love.)
Young Noah, played by Ryan Gosling, falls in love with Allie (Rachel McAdams) and pursues her. As he gets to know her Noah recognizes that Allie is a people pleaser, that her goals and desires are tied to her parents’ goals for her and that many of her choices are made to avoid hurting or offending others rather than reflections of her own desires. Allie doesn’t really know what she wants for herself and Noah doesn’t want to pressure her into choosing him. Noah wants Allie’s love to be a free will choice. He’s willing to wait.
Choices and circumstances separate them, neither knowing whether the other even remembers their summer romance. The young Noah consistently demonstrates faithfulness. He writes Allie every day but she never gets the letters. With Allie in mind, Noah restores the abandoned house where they spent that last summer night together year before.
“He got the notion into his head that if he restored the old house where they had come that night, Allie would find a way to come back to him. Some called it a labor of love. Others called it something else. But in fact, Noah had gone a little mad.” It is Garner’s narrative voice the provides the exposition and interprets the emotional core of the film.
Just as years before Noah hoped that love would bring them back together, Duke patiently waits for Allie to realize that the story he has been reading is their own. When Allie and Noah’s grown children urge Noah to move on with his life Garner delivers my single favorite line in the film,
Noah believes that love will bring Allie back to him, just as she came back when they were young. He is still “all-in” in this relationship, writing letter after letter that go unanswered until Allie has a flash of recognition. They have a few moments together before dementia takes her from him once again. Garner’s face, body language, and vocal tone as Noah responds in this scene wrecks me every time I see it.
Alzheimer’s may have ravaged Allie’s mind but Duke refuses to let it ravage their love. He keeps reading the story that Allie wrote to help herself remember. Allie is still in there and Duke remains faithful to her to the end. As far as I’m concerned this performance is James Garner’s best and nobody could have told it better. Thanks, James. I loved what you did.