(directed by Mike Mills, 2011)
This deliciously quirky film is all about love, loss and letting go. It manages to be thought-provoking without being pretentious, sweet without being sentimental and moving without being mawkish. Not much happens, but it leaves you with a warm sense of humanity’s capacity for love in all its forms: for parents, children, friends, lovers, girlfriends, boyfriends, pets.
At the beginning of the film, thirty-something Oliver (Ewan McGregor) has just lost his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer, obviously enjoying himself). After the death of his wife four or five years earlier, Hal announced that he was gay and has spent the last few years of his life trying to make up for the experiences and fulfilment denied to his younger self. Having struggled to accept and support his father’s emancipation, Oliver is left stranded by Hal’s zest for his new life, so quickly followed by his death. Indeed, Hal’s success in finding friends and a partner, in that short four-year period of freedom, merely puts into perspective Oliver’s own loneliness. When he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress with a similar emotional reserve, he realises that happiness might finally be within reach.
In Shakespeare in Love the wise Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) comments that audiences fundamentally want ‘love, and a bit with a dog’. Beginners delivers amply on both counts. It flits backwards and forwards between the present and the past: between Oliver’s romance with Anna; Hal’s efforts to find a place as a senior citizen in the gay community; and Oliver’s memories of his childhood, in which his unhappy, unsatisfied mother dominates his life and his father is largely absent. It shows how hard it must have been for gay people in the 1950s and 1960s, when many of them believed that their feelings were the result of mental illness, and sought to bury their emotions beneath the motions of normal family life. They suffered, and so did their wives or husbands, and the children born of these marriages which, with the best will in the world, were often riddled with unspoken despair and antagonism.
People of Hal’s generation, even if they are finally able to articulate their desires in today’s more accepting climate, find that there are few out there to respond to them. One of the parts I found most touching was the scene where Hal reports to Oliver on his first visit to a gay club – an act that must have taken extraordinary courage, and yet was rewarded only with indifference from the younger men around him. Meanwhile, demanding no less courage, Oliver tries to overcome his usual reticence in the hope of finding something lasting with the free-spirited, self-contained Anna. McGregor and Laurent have a great chemistry: I genuinely believed that these two people would be just as happy staying up all night talking, or browsing second-hand bookshops (bless them), as making love.
One of the film’s main quirks is Arthur, Hal’s pet Jack Russell (ably played by Cosmo). He doesn’t play a huge part in the plot, but he’s always there, inseparable from Oliver. And he talks: only to Oliver, in subtitles, but he offers an infrequent, objective and commonsensical commentary on Oliver’s developing romance with Anna. It works, trust me. Moreover, he’s very cute. What with him and Uggie (of The Artist fame) blazing a cinematic trail, it’s no wonder that dogs’ homes have seen a rush of demand for Jack Russells in the last year or so. This odd but endearing angle gives the film a little bit more humour and prevents it being too heavy, while also adding a little extra pathos here and there. I liked the part, shortly after his father’s death, when Oliver brings Arthur to live with him and gently takes the dog around the house, showing him all the rooms and telling him what they’re for, so that he’ll feel at home.
If you like action films with explosions and car chases and loud noises, then this probably won’t be up your street. But if you like character pieces, give it a go. It reminded me quite a lot of The Barbarian Invasions, although it doesn’t quite have that film’s level of dinner-table conversational brilliance – but it treats the same themes of family, love, grief and bereavement, while offering the hope of dignity and catharsis for those who remain behind.