Union is a wartime romance that reminds you of how gentle could love be. In a tale of rousing passion revolving around its two protagonists Henry and Virginia and one that defies many barriers (albeit unconsciously), the director Whitney Hamilton makes us realise the fragility, the tenderness in their relationship. Despite the inherent melancholy in their lives in the time of war, Union is narrated with the lightness of a bed-time tale. It takes you through the moments of a relationship forged amidst a revolution and emotional turmoil at its own sweet pace. Though the historicity in the film often takes a backseat in comparison with the romance, it’s a creative compromise that doesn’t hurt much.
The film could have explored many layers in its romance, but prefers to be simplistic in its treatment, a factor that makes the result sluggish and uni-dimensional many a time. In the backdrop of the US Civil War, a woman takes on the identity of her deceased brother Henry and falls in love with a widow Virginia, who helps her heal through a psychologically disturbing phase. As the title says, the film is largely about the difficulties they have to surpass to become ‘one’. Their only meeting ground is the troubled past they share and the inner demons they must triumph against.
What must it feel for a woman to adopt the identity of a man and marry the love of her life? Would that complicate her idea of sexuality after all? Union isn’t willing to answer those questions. Even though it’s a queer romance by every means, gender is the last among the filmmaker’s concerns – perhaps it was the director’s way of normalising a homosexual relationship when the universe didn’t bother what ‘coming out of the closet’ meant. The lens is focused on the small world that its protagonists inhabit and their personal conflicts.
The filmmaker doesn’t invest the same amount of passion into the action and war sequences as much as the romance. Though the makers claim to have shot some of the sequences in true locations, the execution lacks authenticity. The action segments are unimaginatively filmed and robs the charm of an otherwise passionately told story. The film is poignant as long as it remains personal and represents the concerns of its protagonists, but there’s little context to the story otherwise. The character-establishment of its leads feel redundant. The gentleness in the romance is welcoming only to turn an indulgence sooner.
Union tries to find a reason behind every tear that the protagonists shed. The dialogues more or less have a bookish tone and verbalise everything that the characters feel, leaving little for the audiences to interpret. The underplayed romance between its lead pair is its primary strength, but the film would have been helped by a solid conflict/better-written subplots. The sense of longing and ‘love conquering all barriers’ doesn’t resonate.
It wants to be light and not intense and that’s where Union misses the trick. Some element of intrigue associated with the romance could have given the weight the relationship may have deserved – the struggles don’t quite move you. The references to the ‘Great Spirit’ and the fireflies are heartfelt towards the ending, however, the visual poetry is absent. Jimi Zhivago’s haunting score, the passion-filled frames of its cinematographer William Schweikert and the vulnerability of its lead actor Virginia Newcomb stay with you long after the film ends.