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Beginners

Reviewed by Dario Llinares.

Director Mike Mills
Length 105 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

‘Quirkiness’ is sometimes treated as a badge of honour that is worn by American indie comedies to suggest intellectual depth, an anti-mainstream sensibility, and refute the boundaries of generic classification (see this article for further definition of the term). Thumbsucker (2005) director Mike Mills’ latest turns its ‘quirk’ factor up to eleven for a tale about the uncertainty of identity and the human connections that we are all capable of taking for granted. As with many films of its type, the movie at times teeters on the verge of overindulgence in its deployment of a full arsenal of 'kookiness' and 'off-beat' musing. But the craft with which Beginners is put together, the calibre of the performances, and the subtle intelligence woven through the fabric of the film, makes it engaging and poignant.

Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, an introspective graphic artist whose alienation is exacerbated when he discovers his 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), is both gay and terminally ill with cancer. Oliver’s eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller), who dies during the film's fragmented temporal structure, was also never aware of her husband’s sexuality. Oliver is thus forced to reassess his parents’ marriage and his own memories of childhood. The relationship between father and son in the present is not depicted with the usual clichés of filial acrimony or competitiveness. Oliver’s accepting response to his father’s ventures into the gay community, while being simultaneously in denial about his fading health, is handled with subtlety and honesty.

Counterpoising this plotline, Oliver also meets and falls in love with a mysterious Gallic beauty named Anna (Mélanie Laurent). At times it feels as though Anna has been parachuted in from a nouvelle vague movie, and to some this will seem a rather obvious attempt to flavour the film with a European art-house sensibility. On the whole, though, Laurent exudes enough genuine charm to avoid becoming merely archetypal. Plummer too is an excellent performer, effortlessly transitioning between moments of pathos, joy, sadness and a kind of knowing wit, to create a soft, irreverent character. Ewan McGregor comes to any role with a certain amount of baggage - so promising in his early career but increasingly weighed down by the anchor of stardom. Here he reins in the mannerisms to great effect, managing against the odds to cohere with the understated movie developing around him.

The film jumps between time periods to such a degree that a sense of cause-and-effect largely disappears. This fits well with the conceit that life is not a progressive journey of gradual enlightenment but a constantly shifting and uncertain terrain. For me the key theme being tackled here is that we know so little about each other, even the closest people in our lives; given this, the film seems to ask, how can we really know ourselves? Such questions are implicit throughout: from the fancy dress party where Oliver meets a temporarily mute Anna, to montage sequences which place the story in the context of life the universe and everything, to the thoughts of Arthur - Hal’s Jack Russell - whose naïvely inquisitive personality is shared via subtitles. Oliver’s relationship to Arthur is a symbolic microcosm of the entire film.

This film won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I am sure that some will find it a nauseating odyssey in naval-gazing, but for me it managed (just) to keep to the right side of a quirk overload. This is thanks to its fastidious attention to detail, refreshingly modest direction and acting, an ending that hits the right note and - perhaps above all - an unexpected willingness to treat its audience as adults.

This review was published on July 30, 2011.

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