I’m not entirely certain what to write about the film that explores the relationships Oliver (Ewan McGregor) has with his recently out father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and free-spirited woman Anna (Mélanie Laurent). I’m not to certain what to write, as I’m not certain I really thought much about it. It is neither good nor bad; to me it was just very... nice. No, nice has almost become a terrible word now, filled with negative connotations. No, Beginners was lovely and fluffy but tackling some pretty heavy emotional situations and it just didn’t zap my brain quite like some other films have.
Events in the film jump chronologically, all narrated by Ewan McGregor. His Oliver is definitely telling us the story as he saw it, with asides and factoids littered throughout. After the death of his wife of 44 years Hal, Oliver’s father, comes out to his son. He takes a young lover, joins gay book clubs, gay movie nights and various gay rights organisations, seemingly living for the first time in decades. I was reminded a little of my Granddad Henry who, after two failed marriages and five kids came out himself. I didn’t really know Granddad Henry too well and I didn’t have a relationship with him anywhere near what Oliver has with his father Hal, but he would have faced the same prejudice and the same struggle that this character would have. After Hal’s death from cancer, Oliver meets Laurent’s French actress Anna at a costume party. Despite her being unable to speak due to laryngitis they make a connection almost immediately, seeing something reflected within each other. There are also moments of Oliver’s childhood time spent with his mother and how these events are still impacting on his life. These three strands are woven throughout the film, often smartly cutting from one to the other illuminating facets of Oliver and why he is the way he is with relationships. And there’s Arthur, the psychic Jack Russell terrier.
Things tread dangerously close to “hip indie romantic comedy-drama thing”: a straight-laced guy (but with a cool, interesting job. In this case, graphic designer/doodler) meets a free-spirited woman who he shares a real connection with and who opens him up, before running into troubles come act two. There are also “kooky” touches, like a talking dog and funny/random factoids littered throughout the narration. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? But Beginners is saved from this formulaic fate by Christopher Plummer’s Hal. Upon learning of this secret his father has been carrying for decades, Oliver does not shun him or reject him. He just seems to accept it and is content in the knowledge that his father, who always seemed so cold and distant (he is never seen in the childhood flashbacks), has finally found love and is happy. This father-son relationship is where the true emotion of the film lies and Plummer and McGregor are wonderful together. They play off one another so naturally that when Hal’s death finally comes, it’s a real emotional punch. This is not to lessen the performance of Mélanie Laurent at all, as she is nothing less than a constant delight. She lightens and enlivens what could have been a predictable role we’ve all seen before.
Well, I guess I had a little something to say after all. Beginners was a well-made and thoughtful film but not one I am going to be thinking too much of when I look back at this year’s Film Festival.