BEGINNERS (15): On General Release Friday 22nd July
Beginners, Mike Mills’ follow up to Thumbsucker is a heartfelt and well acted drama which is expectedly offbeat but doesn’t sacrifice emotional punch. It’s the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist who is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who only revealed his homosexuality a few years ago at the age of 75 when his mother died.
In a series of flashbacks we glimpse memories of his childhood in which his parents’ marriage was always civil but tellingly clinical, a product of the conformity of the 1950s. We also visit the short years between Hal’s liberation and his death where he embraced his sexuality, became a prominent member of the gay scene and found love with a much younger man (Goran Visnijc).
These flashbacks are interspersed with slide shows and photographs overlaid with a surprisingly effective narration as Oliver tries to understand his parents’ lives and in turn his own (“This is what happy looked like in 1955”) in light of these new revelations.
Meanwhile in the present, Oliver meets Anna (the achingly beautiful Melanie Laurent), a seemingly carefree French actress, at a fancy dress party and things begin to look up. But their tentative relationship is plagued by mutual commitment issues and the Oliver’s memories of his father.
Oliver confides in Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier that he inherited from his father, the dog “speaking” his half of the conversation in subtitles. It’s one of those typically quirky devices that is common to indie films but Beginners avoids coming across as cloying or twee because it’s not only incredibly funny but deeply heartfelt.
It’s brilliantly acted by Ewan McGregor (we can almost forgive him for that excruciating Davidoff advert he put out a few years ago), who manages to convey sadness, confusion and grieving in ways that never seem fake or overly-dramatised. The scenes of Oliver bonding with his father even as he lies dying are handled with warm affection and are also incredibly touching.
Christopher Plummer is also wonderful, dignified but also full of sprightly joy and childishly playful fun. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t have to pretend to be something he’s not and he’s determined to seize every opportunity to be happy.
There’s also an all-too-brief but nevertheless scene-stealing appearance by Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s mother, whose sardonic attitude and impulsive relationship with her young son suggests a bitterly concealed inner torment.
But if the relationship between Hal and Oliver is handled masterfully, Anna, Oliver’s love interest, is little more than a sketch, merely a pouty enigma for him to fall in love with, than a fully realised character.
Nevertheless, Beginners is a charming, frequently funny and heartfelt drama with some inventively offbeat touches. Highly recommended.