Saturday 3 November 2018

Movie Review: Beginners (2010)

A whimsical drama, Beginners explores themes of sadness, loss and finding romance against the odds, all with a light touch.

Cartoonist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) is a thirtysomething man coping with the recent death of his 75 year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer). Five years prior, Oliver's mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) passed away, and immediately afterwards Hal declared that throughout the 40 plus years of marriage he has always been gay, and now wants to express his real sexuality.

In the present, Oliver meets and starts dating French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), but despite the ever present companionship of his cute terrier Arthur, he struggles to overcome overwhelming sadness and a tendency to sabotage his relationships. In flashback, he recalls his father's final years as a sick man intent on living a full life and enjoying the company of his much younger gay lover Andy (Goran Višnjić). In other flashbacks, Oliver recalls childhood interactions with his often lonely mother.

Directed and written by Mike Mills and inspired by his own life, Beginners maintains an understated and just slightly playful tone. Best exemplified by Oliver's drowning-in-sorrow cartoon drawings and the dog Arthur occasionally expressing his dog-like thoughts through subtitles, this is a film where voices are low, emotions are expressed calmly, and arguments are characterized by strained silence and quiet tears.

The flashbacks to different times in Oliver's life reveal the structure of his parents' marriage. His scenes as a boy with his mother Georgia barely ever include her husband Hal, as the adult Oliver comes to terms with the cold love that permeated his childhood.

With Christopher Plummer in sparkling form, Hal comes into his own in the flashbacks dedicated to his short but intense life as a proudly gay elderly man, throwing himself into the lifestyle and volunteering for causes despite creeping ill health. Oliver has to reconcile his joy at his father's late-life blossoming with the charade that his mother must have lived through during a long marriage.

The present-day relationship between Oliver and Anna enjoys some moments, with a meet-cute highlight caused by her laryngitis. But gradually Oliver drowns in a sea of sadness and sucks the life out of both the movie and the relationship, as Mills surrenders to a long stretch of bleakness bordering on oppressive.

Beginners has the courage to gently press against the tender scars of familial upheaval, the muted expressions serving as both a perk and a constraint.

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