Beginners is a European-style American indie film about two lonely and hurting people (Oliver and Anna), haunted in different ways by their fathers, who try, against their natural inclinations, to make a lasting connection. Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, is an L.A. artist in his late thirties who has been unable to sustain a relationship, perhaps because of the relationship between his parents as he was growing up. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has just died of cancer. Four years before, after Oliver’s mother death, Hal told Oliver he was gay and was intent on pursuing a gay relationship at the age of 75 (after 44 years of marriage that were obviously not as fulfilling as they could have been). Anna, played by Melanie Laurent, is an aspiring New York actress whose suicidal father calls her up every day to talk. Oliver and Anna meet at a costume party, with Oliver playing Sigmund Freud and Anna unable to talk (laryngitis), a perfect beginning to a relationship where silence, introspection and psychoanalysis are major players. In this first meeting, it is Anna who plays the analyst, asking Oliver why he came to a party when he is so sad. Oliver is indeed sad, as is Anna in her own way. The entire film is sad and yet it is also a comedy, with the third party in this relationship drawing the most laughs. The third party is Arthur, Hal’s dog and now Oliver’s constant companion.
Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills, has a quirky style that feels familiar (I can’t recall the film it is reminding me of, but I think a number of indie films use similar devices). Along with the score, the cinematography, the dialogue, and even the humour, the style creates an overwhelmingly subdued and melancholy film which reflects the lives and characters of our protagonists and draws us into their somewhat desperate relationship. The fact that Oliver and Anna are two very good-looking people should be a hindrance to this, but McGregor and Laurent pull it off with flawless performances, believably giving us two characters who feel that their relationship is doomed before it even begins. I have, in the past, questioned McGregor’s acting ability but now with The Ghost Writer and Beginners, I will gladly eat my words and say that he is capable, under the right circumstances, of great things, even apart from Moulin Rouge, which remains his greatest achievement.
Beginners does an excellent job with both the romance and the relationship between Oliver and Hal (Plummer, as usual, was also great). If I understood the flashbacks correctly, Oliver cannot let go of his parents and is particularly haunted by the last years and days of Hal’s life. Oliver seems to accept Hal’s sexual orientation but as a son who was never as close to his father as he wished to be, Hal’s relationship with another man is somewhat uncomfortable. The honest and sympathetic way homosexuality is presented in Beginners is yet another highlight of this wonderfully entertaining film, which gets a very solid ***+ and may even get into my top ten of the year.