It’s never too late to start
We often hear that a film is “deeply personal” to the filmmaker. It’s almost like they’re trying to put a stamp of quality on a film before it’s even released. Beginners is not only deeply personal, it’s semi-autobiographical.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is packing up his recently deceased father’s house. He explains in voice-over how his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) waited until Oliver’s mother died to reveal that he was gay and wanted to fully explore his sexuality. Shortly afterwards, Hal discovers that he has cancer. The film is split between Hal’s last few months and Oliver’s budding relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress. But both Oliver and Anna are dealing with inherited intimacy and trust issues.
It’s the autobiographical parts of the film, namely the scenes between Oliver and Hal, that are the most successful. As Hal squeezes as much joy as he can out of the time he has left, Oliver is forced to reconsider his childhood and his personality, which are slowly explained through very effective flashbacks (with the excellent Mary Page Kelly his unhappy mother). There are no big scenes in Beginners; it’s an accumulation of brief but important moments. Then there’s Oliver’s relationship with Anna. While their scenes together aren’t as effective as those between Oliver and Hal, the two actors work very well together. Laurent isn’t given as much to work with as McGregor or Plummer, but we learn enough about Anna to establish that they’ve got a lot in common when it comes to unresolved childhood issues that make them unable to commit.
McGregor is on top form, giving an understated performance as the fragile Oliver, while Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) stays just the right side of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Plummer is superb as a man who is revelling in the joy of finally being himself. He shares everything with his son, calling him up in the middle of the night (“I don’t care if I woke you!”). Hal is a gift of a character and the veteran thespian knows it. And in a big surprise, ER’s Doctor Kovac himself, Goran Visnjic, is terrific as Hal’s immature but doting lover Andy.
Mills is occasionally a little too prone to repeating visual quirks. The photo montages and illustrations are used once or twice too often, and his decision to not rush Oliver and Anna’s relationship is admirable but it does lead to a couple of overlong scenes. However, Mills finds a tone that is both optimistic and realistic. While some problems are solved, others are left to fester. Oliver’s prolonged grief is touching and believable, as is his confused but committed supportiveness of his father’s self-discovery.
Verdict: It’s occasionally a little too leisurely and quirky for its own good, but Beginners is a wonderfully performed, funny, touching film.