Introduction

Beginners

Beginners
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2010
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Mike Mills
  • Running time: 105 minutes
  • Official website: www.beginnersmovie.co.uk
 

Beginners is all about fresh starts. EWAN McGREGOR is Oliver, whose father Hal (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER) has just died. Oliver recalls how Hal came out as gay five years earlier at the age of 75, after the death of his wife of 45 years, and the film follows Oliver’s attempts to embrace love when it begins to blossom, just as his dad did. The romantic comedy label doesn’t do justice to this ‘deeply poignant’ (Peter Debruge, Variety) and ‘marvellously inventive’ film (David Edelstein, New York Magazine) which will ‘entrance sophisticated audiences’ (Allan Hunter, Screen International).

The zest with which Hal approached his new life, which included acquiring a devoted young lover, Andy (GORAN VISNJIC, from TV series ER), inspires Oliver in building a relationship with Anna (MELANIE LAURENT, seen previously in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2009).

This is writer and director MIKE MILLS’s second feature (his first was Thumbsucker in 2005) and it is based on his memories of his own father coming out and dying of cancer.

Beginners has an unusual and striking visual flair. Just as Mills was previously a graphic designer Oliver is too, and drawings, graffiti and photographic slide shows charting recent episodes of social history are woven into the story.

Plummer’s performance has been tipped by critics for awards success. Now aged 81, he is, like Hal, enjoying an Indian summer. His recent turn as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009) was Oscar-nominated, and he will be seen later this year in a remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

McGregor is also savouring a run of recent successes including I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and The Ghost (2010). His performance here has been judged ‘his best to date' (Claudia Puig, USA Today).

Not to be outdone, Cosmo, the dog playing Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, took the lead role in the comedy Hotel For Dogs (2009).

Amid this accomplished talent, watch out for the woman who steals the scene at the ice skating rink. Not an actor, she actually works there.

Re-view

Beginners

STARTING OUT

Beginners started when my father came out of the closet. He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away five years later to cancer he was energised, reaching out; he wasn’t in any way finished.”

(MIKE MILLS, WRITER AND DIRECTOR)

The film unfolds with infectious charm and feeling thanks to a trio of seemingly effortless performances from Plummer, McGregor and Laurent. 'The movie’s playfulness rubs off on the actors', wrote Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter.

Beginning at the end

Plummer, in particular, drew fulsome praise for his portrayal of a man trapped in denial all his life, only to taste a brief moment of honest freedom in his twilight years. ‘The actor Kenneth Tynan called ‘saturnine’ is light and lithe… Is Plummer skipping along the surface of the man? Anything but. He’s portraying, with brilliant empathy, a man elated to be skipping along the surface of his own life, a surface on which he had never been permitted to tread.’ (David Edelstein, New York Magazine).

Plummer ‘eats up the role’ and ‘brings an eye-catching comic energy, but also a determined dignity to Hal’s dive into bar-hopping’ (Kate Stables, Sight & Sound). Especially touching is the scene where he calls Oliver late at night to ask him what the wonderful music he’s just heard at a dance club is called. “House music, OK…” he muses, carefully writing it down in a notebook so he won’t forget it.

McGregor’s acting, meanwhile, is carefully nuanced. It is 'a performance of shining subtlety,' (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone).

Carrying on as if they mean to start

Commitment-phobe Oliver attributes his emotional diffidence to his parents’ passionless marriage and Anna is similar in this regard. ‘Mills also wants you to see, little by little, that Anna, an actress, has her own family issues and is better at play-acting than being.’ (David Edelstein, New York Magazine). “You don’t know me”, she tells Oliver after they sleep together. “I like that.”

Mills reminds us that Oliver and Anna’s freedom to have a melancholic, angst-ridden, non-committal relationship is a 21st century luxury. Previously “things bigger than them” determined what people did, and Oliver’s photo montage depicts his mother finding out “what it meant to be Jewish” in 1938 and the climate of intolerance that drove Hal into the closet. Oliver and Anna aren’t persecuted, don’t have to fight in a war and weren’t expected to move to the suburbs and start making babies before they reached 30.

Hal’s love affair encourages Oliver to seize life’s chances. Hal teaches him how to love Anna and his love with Anna helps him understand Hal. Timelines are deftly juggled so each relationship – father/son and son/lover – is seen to have a bearing on the other, even though Hal and Anna never actually meet.

Oliver and Anna’s romance and the bittersweet, comic whimsy of the graphics reminded critics of Woody Allen movies. The film’s wistful tone and mood were also compared with the films of Kar Wai Wong, including Chungking Express (1994), by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Silent screen play

Humour prevents the potentially melancholy subject matter deadening the narrative. There's the first meeting between Oliver and Anna (at a party where he's dressed as Sigmund Freud and she as Charlie Chaplin) in which her playful flirting is conducted in writing because she has laryngitis. The music they then dance to is replaced on the film soundtrack by jazz piano music, as if it’s a silent film.

Then there's Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, who communicates with subtitles. Oliver talks to him as a substitute for his dad and he serves as a metaphor for Hal and his suppressed feelings. Oliver tells him that his breed “chase tennis balls ‘cos that’s as close to a fox as you’re gonna get” and says “go and have experiences with your own people”. As The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday commented: 'You know you're in the hands of a superbly gifted film-maker when he can pull off a talking dog.' 

 
Pro-files

Beginners

 
Cinemas

Beginners

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