Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer are not famous faces normally associated with the documentary treatment. Instead, they are lovers who've experienced a near-lifelong commitment that's revealed an emotional purity throughout the years, viewed through the prism of gay and lesbian history. Edie and Thea might be complete strangers at the outset of the picture, but their story is a gripping, endearing tale of romance and perseverance. They'll be your friends in no time.
Previous to their meeting and eventual bond, Edie and Thea led very different lives. Edie was a frustrated lesbian conforming to the demands of Eisenhower-era domesticity, carrying on affairs (even a marriage) with men, following through on what was expected of her. Thea was more of a defiant woman, seizing her sexuality at a young age, aided well by her brawn and her considerable intelligence. When the two finally connected in the 1960s, it was a perfect fit, setting off a relationship that would grow in love and pride as the years carried on.
To tell this story, filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir ("The Brandon Teena Story") take a photographic route, charting the development of Edie and Thea's relationship through pictorial evidence, presenting the twosome with vivid reminders of their past adventures via slide show to extract the precise memories. The images are colorful and mischievous, reflecting a union that's developed in private to a bursting point, following Edie and Thea as they traveled the world and grew to appreciate each other's idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it's a story common to the ways of attraction, yet "A Very Long Engagement" is careful to create a personal feeling of a secretive life on the go, creating a sensation of romantic flight before medical realities grounded the couple.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Thea's body began to slowly deteriorate. While her mind stayed in pristine condition, her mobility was reduced to a wheelchair (a cruel development for a woman who loved to dance), forcing the couple to reconsider their methods of partnership. With loyalty never in doubt, Edie and Thea carried on, perhaps more mindful of their romantic luck than ever before. The picture transmits this ease through affable interviews, but the essential elements of attraction and companionship are easily read on Edie and Thea's faces.
The full frame presentation keeps to a very modest viewing experience. The clarity of the picture is encouraging, displaying numerous photographs with a lovely range of colors to help convey the range of eras covered in the film. Interview footage retains a video feel, but no digital hiccups were detected. The DVD supplies a comfortable image that matches the low-budget nature of the documentary.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix matches the visual elements competently, delivering a frontal track that holds the interview sequences with Edie and Thea in crisp command, with nothing lost. Scoring selections bring about some dimension, but the core of the mix is rooted in basic conversational elements.
English subtitles are included.
"Interview with Judge Harvey Brownstone" (16:17) is an extended conversation with the openly gay Canadian legal official who married Thea and Edie in 2007. Talk of same-sex marriage particulars ensues.
"Edie with Directors Susan Muska & Greta Olafsdottir on the Festival Circuit" (59:22) follows the trio as they tour the film around, engaging in extended Q&As and glad-handing the locals.
"In the Life" (5:26) is a segment prepared for a cable television program that interviews the trio, who reveal how the film came to be and its impact in their lives.
"Coping with Disability" (18:43) is a deleted segment from the film, discussing Thea's battle with MS, exploring Edie's caretaker role and their social life together.
"Life After Thea" (3:00) catches up briefly with Edie after Thea's 2009 death, with most talk kept to her response to the film.
"Edie's Story" (13:26) is a reading of an autobiographical short story Edie prepared for a writing class.
A Photo Gallery is included.
Throughout their lives, Edie and Thea shadowed the rise of gay pride, involving themselves in politics and witnessing the determination of the movement, including the aftermath of the Stonewall riots. "A Very Long Engagement" isn't a politically charged document, but the conclusion paints a vivid picture of the struggle for same-sex unions, as Edie and Thea take to Canada to achieve something they've always desired but could never enjoy: marriage. It's a peaceful statement of unity, gently flooded into a surprisingly enchanting film that celebrates a love that defies all labels and limitations, reduced to its core of two individuals and their utter devotion to each other.