“This is what love feels like.”
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent
Synopsis: A young man is rocked by two announcements from his elderly father: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has a young male lover.
It’s not so much the way that 38-year-old Oliver (Ewan McGregor) copes with the ‘I’m gay’ bombshell dropped by his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) following the death of his mother that I find difficult to get my head around. It’s how Hal could have lived a lie for 45 years that baffles me. What a sad life he must have led. Beginners uses a device of Oliver’s voiceover explaining that ‘this is how (fill blank) looked in 19–‘ as a series of snapshots are flashed up on the screen to stress how different things were back when Hal was struggling with his sexuality, but gives little explanation as to why he continued to conceal his homosexuality when society grew more accepting. His wife knew he was gay — ‘she said she could cure me,’ Hal explains to his son — and we see from flashbacks that, while she deeply loved the frequently absent Hal, the state of their marriage made her miserable. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t about Hal, it’s about Oliver and how he copes with his father’s revelation, and I can’t help feeling that Beginners is that much weaker because of it.
The movie opens following Hal’s death just a few short years after coming out, and divides its attention between Oliver’s relationship with his father in those years and how he copes with his death at the same time as embarking on a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a time in his life when he believed he would never find love. Many small mysteries are answered with his father’s declaration, and Oliver shows remarkable restraint — or perhaps he simply internalises his emotions — upon hearing the news. His father embraces the gay lifestyle with the enthusiasm of a — well, a beginner — and shows a much greater confidence about his sexuality than his new, and younger, boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic).
Following Hal’s death, Oliver inherits his Jack Russell who appears to have the ability to be able to communicate — subtitles occasionally appear on the screen to show what he is thinking — although I think the idea is that his ‘words’ are simply a projection of Oliver’s thoughts. If I’m right, then it’s a neat way of expressing emotions that just wouldn’t work if Oliver was to come right out and say them himself, but it does start to come across as a little too twee after the third or fourth time. But this kind of shorthand is perhaps where the problem with Beginners lies. Oliver’s relationship with Anna seems to hit the rocks before it’s even left the shore, and the oblique style in which writer and director Mike Mills approaches the topics he wishes to explore can grow a little frustrating. It all has the feeling of being a little too impressed by its own quirky cleverness at times, and the brevity of many of the scenes leaves you wanting more, but not in a good way.
Beginners probably splits its audience right down the middle, with some revelling in the non-linear and sometimes cryptic fashion in which it makes its point, and others growing too impatient to see it through to its conclusion.