Mike Mills’ exceptional film, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, makes ninety percent of Hollywood’s romantic output feel as fake as their lead actor’s smiles.
Directed by: Mike Mills
Written by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, Christopher Plummer
Released: 2010 / Genre: Drama/Romance / Country: USA / IMDB
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Written and directed by Thumbsucker filmmaker Mike Mills, Beginners tells the story of emotionally aloof Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who begins a series of reminiscences about life with his parents after beginning a passionate love affair with a beautiful French actress (Melanie Laurent). Told in flashback we learn that Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out as gay after Georgia, Oliver’s mother, died. This was the beginning of a new lease of life for the man in his seventies, something Oliver struggles to come to terms with (less so because of his father’s sexuality, more because the love he shows towards his new boyfriend is oddly disproportionate to the emotional attachment Oliver feels is lacking between them). But Hal is diagnosed with cancer, forcing the pair to address their own existence. In present day, where Oliver meets Anna, he draws parallels with his father’s own love affair, his first as an openly gay man. Oliver remains closeted in a non-sexual sense. Unlike his father, his emotions are still erupting inside with no outlet (although his job as a graphic designer gives him creative license), like the steam in a boiling kettle without a release point. Slowly but surely he allows himself to be freed from his entrapment with honest, moving, and at times, amusing results.
Beginners is based on the true-life story of writer-director Mike Mills’ own father who declared, at age 75, that he was homosexual five years prior to his death. Mills, as envisaged through Ewan McGregor’s character Oliver, interestingly remains non-judgemental in his reaction to Hal’s sexual awakening. Instead, he uses it as a basis for commenting on love itself, highlighting the cyclical nature of life and how subtle differences hide the repetition of our lives. Mills is obviously hinting at the idea that love, in its truest, most pure sense, should be embraced in anyway it comes, whoever that may be between. The references to Hal’s absence during Oliver’s younger years, that he felt a physical and emotional detachment from his father, lends balance to proceedings. Love between two people may be the same from generation to generation, but it should not be taken for granted. And, as Oliver finds out through his time with Anna, mimicking his awkward upbringing, that kinship, like marriage, like parenting, isn’t easy. Indeed, true love can bring with it just as much heartbreak as it can joy.
The film draws you in through its honest portrayal of life through the highs and lows, the misfortune and the handy breaks, the tears and the laughter. Beginners’ greatest attribute is the fact it is like an open wound, laying bare human emotion, and by extension, the heart and soul of writer-director Mills. His characters, especially Christopher Plummer’s Hal and Melanie Laurent’s Anna, have a painstaking truthfulness about them that hints at years of pain extinguished fleetingly by moments of sheer joy. Oliver recalls that his father’s sexuality could potentially have got him committed when he first realised he was gay as a teenager, leading to half a decade of secrecy and ultimately unfulfillment. Anna is a lost soul, moving from acting job to acting job, hotel room to hotel room, boyfriend to boyfriend. Not only does she lack a physical base, her emotional core is also on the move. And if she does allow family into her life, she finds her father obsessively putting his sadness onto her by claiming he has nothing to live for. Like Oliver, it is as if the pair have steered cleared of emotional togetherness, because their experiences have appeared more like entrapment.
A lot has been made of Christopher Plummer’s exceptional performance but Melanie Laurent is simply superb. She is quiet and reserved which lends her a beautifully alluring sensuality, made tangibly overpowering by the fact she is absolutely gorgeous. This is aided further by our introduction to her as a mute at a fancy dress party. Due to laryngitis she can’t speak, communicating to Oliver via a pen and paper. It is a unique way for two people to meet, making their new found relationship immediately interesting. Mills furthers this interest by introducing the two lovers to each other when dressed up as other people – Oliver is hiding behind a grey beard as Sigmund Freud, Anna is masking her radiating beauty suitably dressed, given her lack of speech, as silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Mills, again subtly, hints at a perceived emotional split between a supposed character we play outwardly, and our real self. This is exampled by Hal’s fifty years in the closet followed by his short-lived emotional release (possibly the happiest time of his life). It is fitting that Oliver dresses up as Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst’s theoretical musing underpinning much of the film’s inherent philosophy, and outwardly playing a part in Oliver’s rhetorical questioning of his own existence.
Beginners is the sort of tragic romantic drama that reminds audiences that love and relationships can be taken seriously on film, that the genre is far from dead. The film makes the high-gloss, snack-like entertainment of Hollywood’s very profitable romantic product feel as fake as the lead actor’s smiles. Beginners offers a much more unique, emotionally captivating and life-affirming view of relationships that is built on a truthfulness vacant from ninety percent of romance films pretending to be about love. There is a lot to like about this film – whether it is the smile inducing sight of seeing two lovers roller skating through a hotel lobby with big grins on their faces, Oliver introducing his father’s dog to his home like a real estate agent selling the premises, or the more moving, restrained moments such as Oliver telling his father’s bereaved boyfriend that he hasn’t spent time with him because his father loved him so much – that Beginners can’t fail to captivate.