Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Weekend' review:

The bitter-sweet story of two men spending as many days together following a one night stand, 'Weekend' is not only a touching and gently funny love story, but a rumination on what it means to be gay. More broadly speaking it's about identity and the conflict between how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others. Here the introverted, determinedly anti-camp Russell (Tom Cullen) finds himself attracted to his opposite: the loud, confrontational and highly politicised artist Glen, played by Chris New.

Russell seeks the path of least resistance where sexuality is concerned - being quiet about his sexual escapades, even in private, and rejecting public displays of affection altogether - whereas Glen is comfortable meeting prejudice with well reasoned debate or juvenile insults as the situation warrants. He bravely seeks to challenge the heteronormative society in which he lives, but he is also pretentious, insensitive and emotionally immature: Russell likens him to a teenager at one stage, even as he regards him with thinly veiled admiration.

Director Andrew Haigh's naturalistic screenplay, along with the fine performances of both leads, brings to life a film of emotional substance and nuance, in which neither character is judged by the filmmaker even as they judge and contradict each other. Glen's cynical take on marriage, as a sort of fay middle class obligation, is every bit as persuasive as Russell's suggestion that the ritual represents a bold public declaration of love. In this way the lengthy, often drug-fuelled, exchanges between them - as they discuss art, sex and gay rights of passage - are always interesting, funny and heartfelt - never sentimental or contrived.

From within a drab block of flats which, as surrounded by security cameras, feels at times like something out of Andrea Arnold's 'Red Road', it is easy to identify with Russell's less overt, less militant homosexuality. Without a single scene of physical violence, Haigh still manages to create an intimidating atmosphere as brainless insults are directed at the protagonists from off-camera. In this way the unseen villain of the piece is not anything as extreme or jarring as a punch in the face, but in the words people use so thoughtlessly - and in the culture itself, as people channel directionless anger into anti-social behaviour. The decision not to show the haters is also arguably a political gesture in of itself: this isn't their movie after all and their place in it, whilst necessary, is marginal. What's far more important is how Russell and Glen react differently to this ever-present oppression as opposed to any specific instance of confrontation.

That it's to some extent broken free of the "Queer cinema" ghetto and achieved modest mainstream box office success - in the UK and US, where it won awards at several festivals - has taken the industry by surprise, with cinemas notably slow on the uptake: forced to carry the film after date in response to audience demand. It might seem odd - and even like evidence of institutionalised homophobia - that it's faced such an uphill battle even in spite of overwhelmingly positive reception in the mainstream press. Yet it's arguably evidence of a fear raised in the film itself, as Glen contemplates the future of his own vaguely defined art project: an installation which will centre on the frank discussion of gay sex in a public forum.

Of that taboo-defying piece he muses that homosexuals won't be interested because it's not at all pornographic, whilst "straights" won't come because it's not about their world. 'Weekend' is challenging these restrictive, intellectually and emotionally stifling lines in the sand in ways even its director couldn't have foreseen, becoming one of the year's stand-out films on its own terms. Whether or not this will have a lasting impact on the exhibition industry, clearing the way for wider distribution of similarly accomplished gay cinema in the future, remains to be seen. But in an industry typically turned on the identification and immediate assimilation of trends (superheroes, J-horror remakes, 3D), I'd be very surprised if distributors weren't at this very moment actively seeking out the next 'Weekend'. The trouble for whichever film inherits that mantle is that Andrew Haigh has set the bar unreasonably high.

'Weekend' is out now in the UK and rated '18' by the BBFC.

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