Sunday, 24 July 2011

'Beginners' review:

From 'Thumbsucker' director Mike Mills, 'Beginners' is a thoughtful, loosely autobiographical film about a thirty-something artist, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), whose father has recently died of cancer a few short years after coming out as gay in his mid-seventies - in a sense, beginning life too late. It's set a few months after Hal (Christopher Plummer) has died and sees his son struggling to move on with life, forming an unhealthy attachment to his late father's dog and with unbearable sadness effecting his work and friendships.

There are frequent backflashes as Oliver thinks back on growing up with his equally unfulfilled mother and his father's life as a closet homosexual, with events put into historical and social context in a way which is less gimmicky than it might sound. Meanwhile Oliver embarks on a new beginning of his own, falling for Anna, a French actress played by an especially winsome Melanie Laurent. It's an ambitious film - as much about the human condition and the history of sadness as it is about love - which mostly lives up to its promise.

'Beginners' is a tearjerker without feeling manipulative and it's life-affirming without being sickly. A large part of its success rests with Christopher Plummer, whose performance as Hal is especially heartbreaking, with the old man facing death when he is at his most vital. His insatiable appetite for new experiences is particularly bittersweet and Mills' reflection on his own father's life as a closet homosexual in the 1950s shows great insight and empathy. Oliver's mother (Mary Page Keller), also deceased, isn't neglected as a character either, with time given to her end of a compromised marriage and relationship with Oliver as a boy.

For his part, McGregor gives an understated and sensitive performance which is easily his best in years, even sporting a decent American accent. Laurent, who appeared on Hollywood's radar after starring in Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' two years ago, is also a presence, showing great range. All of the characters are well drawn and sympathetic - with each of them coming to terms with misfortune and tragedy without self-pity. As romantic leads, McGregor and Laurent enjoy great chemistry and their scenes together are a charming, even if the film is at its best when Plummer is on-screen.

Where it falls down slightly is in its sporadic attempts to be cute and quirky. The drawings Oliver does at work, hired to design a rock band's album cover, and scenes of post-modern graffiti, feel like something from a Fox Searchlight comedy. The superficiality of these moments doesn't quite mesh with the perfectly observed emotional honesty of the rest of the movie. It's also gloomily lit, with even daylight scenes taking place in semi-darkness - a decision no doubt intended to mirror Oliver's less-than-sunny disposition, but which becomes wearisome from an aesthetic standpoint.

Yet with its old-timey soundtrack and existentialist concerns, at its best 'Beginners' feels like vintage Woody Allen, without all the one-liners and with added cause to weep openly. Intelligent, insightful and deeply moving, it's one of the films of the year.

'Beginners' is out now in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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