Film Review – Beginners
Director: Mike Mills
Screenplay: Mike Mills
Players: Ewan McGregor; Christopher Plummer; Mélanie Laurent; Goran Visnjic; Mary Page Keller
Genre: drama; romance; comedy
Here is a film which manages to be uplifting without being cheering: the relationship issues are thought-provoking, even poignant in places but the characters’ intensity and complexity of feeling can also be overwhelmingly claustrophobic for the viewer..
Part of the reason for this complicated situation is that one must become involved with the characters because they are likeable. Oliver (McGregor) is 38 years old but for the past 5 years has been irretrievably involved with his 80-year-old father (Plummer). The moment that Hal Fields (Plummer) had laid his wife to rest he comes out of the closet to confess to his son that he was gay and had always been that way. This confession is done with a close-up of Hal’s face: his ecstatic grin and the sheer joy of the confession is a tremendous relief for him after 38 years of silence. Having dreamed of this moment for years, Hal has planned the remainder of his life down to the last gay pride rainbow. He tries to crowd a lifetime of homosexual incident into the time he has left.
Mills directed and wrote the screenplay and the plotline was based on the real-life confession of his own father. It is therefore no wonder that the character of Oliver, played with great charm and gentleness by McGregor, is depicted with such complexity – and sensitivity.
The title refers not only to Hal’s great coming out, as he begins the life after which he has always yearned. It applies equally to his son, Oliver, who seems a lone spirit, self-contained but with no emotional outlet except for the stream-of-consciousness outpourings that he shares with his scruffy Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. Arthur, played by Cosmo, deserved an Oscar of his own. The dog demonstrates great loyalty and canny understanding of his master’s problems. There is quirky humour in the fact that the dog is given dialogue in the form of subtitles and he is not averse to offering some pertinent and useful advice.
Perhaps it is indicative of Oliver’s emotional insecurity that he is emotionally blackmailed into taking Arthur everywhere with him, even to parties. The film endeavours to explain Oliver’s life by treating three segments of it: firstly, his youth with his mother, Georgia (Keller) a frothy, cynically humorous lady who wafted through their home with the same grace as she cruised round art galleries, with Oliver in tow.
Is Oliver’s emotional isolation a product of a loveless marriage? One wonders. He confesses to four failed relationships of his own. He soldiers through his father’s prolonged cancer and virtually makes a gift of five years of his life. Hal Fields remains ebullient to the end, surrounded by a circle of his Gay Pride friends. The film starts with a group of men in hard hats who are holding a ceremonial fireworks display as a tribute to Hal. One imagines them to be builders or some other macho group; it is, in fact his send-off by his Gay Pride buddies.
This colourful situation, though, is almost a backdrop against which the main drama is played. Oliver’s friend, Elliot, bullies him to come out of his self-imposed shell and accompany him to a fancy-dress party. Oliver wanders along with Arthur, the dog, in tow and he is dressed as Sigmund Freud. This disguise proves inspirational because he can sit puffing away on a pipe, pretending to analyse various party guests without bridging any emotional chasms. Then Anna, a French actress acquires the couch and, ironically, cannot communicate with him except by using a little spiral notebook on which she writes engaging little notes. This is not a physical defect; she is suffering from laryngitis.
Oliver finds himself giving Anna his number: perhaps this is typical of a man with low trust levels. The advances must come from her. Anna, it transpires, has moved round the world for most of her life: her complex is the knowledge that she is destined, or compelled, to keep moving on, leaving people behind. Oliver tells her bitterly, “You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people.” Perhaps this is a veiled reference to his father.
Eventually Oliver and Anna move in together, both pessimistic in the knowledge that it cannot or will not work. Since both of them are convinced of this self-fulfilling prophecy, Anna does leave, partly because of her compulsion and partly because of Oliver’s prodding for her to go. He does not want to commit. He confesses in a voice-over,” I don’t believe it will really work; and then I make sure that it doesn’t.”
When Oliver realises that he finds Anna attractive, he derides himself ‘falling again at the age of 38.’ He confesses “It’s like I lost the instructions (to life).”
There is something essentially sad about this couple, both of whom are so fragile, yet so needy. Oliver saw his father truly happy for the last five years of his life and comes to appreciate that the toy-boy lover is more than a pretty face. Both mother and father tried to teach him lessons for life but at 38 he was not graduating cum laude. I personally liked the mother’s aim for her son:” Here is simple and happy. That’s what I meant to give you. “ On that note Oliver becomes a beginner in life – again.