Review: Phyllis and Harold (2010)

Do Phyllis and Harold Kleine have a story worth hearing? Perhaps, in the same sense that we all do. There are secrets and surprises found buried within their 59-year marriage; their reflections are a mix of juicy gossip and somber reflection.

But “Phyllis and Harold” is such a clutter of a film, an engaging, earnest tale bungled through the intrusions of documentary filmmaker Cindy Kleine – daughter of the titular couple. Kleine interrupts the story all too often, throwing cutesy animation and too-clever on-screen personal narrations that shift focus to unnecessary corners. There’s even a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film where Cindy films herself visiting the nanny who essentially raised her, and we think, wait a minute, who’s this movie about again?

The point of Cindy’s nanny aside is to show us how uninvolved in the raising of Cindy and her sister the parents were. It doesn’t belong here, but don’t tell Kleine. She loves jumping in front of the camera, repeatedly reminding us that she’s the one doing all the investigating and the documenting.

When the director steps aside, “Phyllis and Harold” reveals its fascinating side. The couple – together and separately – discuss their 1940s courtship; there’s a lovely tenderness to the scene where they read the achingly romantic love letters they exchanged while he was in the Army. A surprise then comes when Phyllis reveals a five-year affair she had with her boss, an affair of which Harold never knew. Years later, when she was in her seventies, she tracked down the man and restarted the affair, although once more, it did not last. This is the heart of the film, a woman who tore herself away from the man she loved to be with the man she married.

It’s such an engaging story that not even Kleine’s showy interruptions can dampen it. And yet the filmmaker overboard with the gotchas, carefully reworking years of interviews and home movies in order to dump bombshells where they’re not needed. As a result, interviews that are powerful at the start of the film – we wonder how clueless Harold has to be to ignore the shockers Phyllis is telling the camera in the next room – lose their weight once we discover Phyllis must’ve made those interviews long after Harold could no longer hear them.

All of this cinematic flamboyance ruins what could’ve been a very sweet, very heartbreaking film. Phyllis has such wonderful stories to tell, and we root for her enough that we’re happy to hear of her eventual liberation (even though much of it remains off camera, forcing more awkward Kleine narration). Her life would be the subject of a nice documentary short, perhaps a single camera to whom she could share all her memories. With Kleine putting herself in the way again and again, “Phyllis and Harold” becomes a self-indulgent bore, unable to convince us just how significant her parents’ lives had been.

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