Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Goran Visjnic, Melanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller.
Mike Mills’ follow-up to Thumbsucker is this story about loss, dysfunctional relationships, resilience, new beginnings, insecurity, and finding yourself. Beginners is a bittersweet and comic semi-autobiographical tale. This is a very personal film for Mills as it draws upon events from his own life and his troubled relationship with his own father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. The overall mood of the film is one of sadness and regret, although it is tempered with some touches of offbeat humour and is ultimately suffused with a sense of optimism.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a lonely 38-year old cartoonist who seems unable to commit to a long-term relationship. “I don’t really believe that they’re going to work so I make sure that they don’t.” He is working on an epic cartoon entitled The History Of Sadness, which seems to sum up his mood. The film picks up his life four months after the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) from terminal cancer. Hal came out of the closet at 75, following the death of his wife of 44 years, and enthusiastically embraced the gay lifestyle and his younger lover Andy (Goran Visjnic).
While still trying to come to terms with his sense of loss, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent, from Inglorious Basterds, etc), a pretty French actress at a costume party. She’s drawn towards his grief and tentatively begins a relationship with him. She slowly draws him out of his introspective mood. Anna temporarily moves in with him, but leaves again, unable to relax around the moody Oliver.
The story largely unravels as a series of lengthy flashbacks that draw parallels between Oliver’s blossoming relationship with Anna and his complex relationship with his father in the years before his death. Hal’s own loving relationship seems to inspire Oliver. We also learn about Oliver’s distant relationship with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who was aware of Hal’s sexuality and made the most of their marriage of convenience.
Oliver also takes possession of Arthur, his father’s cute Jack Russell, who, in an unexpected touch of whimsy, seems to understand Oliver’s emotional turmoil and communicates through subtitles. His scene stealing presence offers some welcome touches of humour.
The three main characters are vividly drawn and are fleshed out by compassionate performances from the cast. Beginners gives veteran Plummer one of the best roles of his life, and he brings a sense of dignity to his performance, which is both touching and sympathetic. McGregor is also very good in a more introspective role, and there is a real poignancy to his relationship with Plummer. Laurent lights up the screen with her presence, but she seems awkward, and there is little chemistry between her and McGregor.
A respected director of commercials and music videos Mills draws upon his background as a photographer and graphic artist in shaping the film’s style, particularly with McGregor’s quirky voice over narration, its overlapping time frames and photo montages. But it is his sense of compassion and insight into complex human emotions that gives the film its resonance.