Beginners is the cinematic antidote for those of you who feel poisoned by the avalanche of “summer action movies.” Instead of an adrenalin induced special effects emotional power surge, this is a movie that is as pleasant and languid as a boat ride down the Suwanee River with a lover on a starlit night.
Beginnersis not a movie that you attend to escape from life, but rather to embrace it in all of its glorious complexities. Ewen McGregor, continuing his development as one of the most versatile actors working today, plays Oliver, a 30-something, single commercial artist whose last surviving parent, his father, has recently died. As Oliver cleans out his father’s condo, he addresses his
father’s Jack Russell terrier as he reflects on his family upbringing. It is clear that Oliver has gone through a series of failed relationships, and it is further evident that there is a link to his childhood and adolescence.
Told in a series of innovative flashbacks, we soon learn why Oliver’s parents had such a cold relationship for their 40-plus years of marriage. Shortly after the death of his mother, the viewer is treated to Oliver’s humorous recollection of the moment where his father, Hal, announces that at the age of 78 he is finally acknowledging to the world that he is gay. Intrigued yet?
As good as Mr. McGregor is, this movie belongs to the accomplished Christopher Plummer, who plays Hal to the hilt. Unlike this year’s “I Love You Phillip Morris”, which also starred Mr. McGregor, Mr. Plummer rejects any cheap tendency to invest Hal with stereotypical comedic excess. To the
contrary, it is clear that he is a man who has long ago wearied of staying in the closet for decades, and he now recognizes that it is well past time to fully embrace his true self. And does he ever.
It is a joy to watch Mr. Plummer truly glow as he basks in the warmth of his new friends and young lover. He is totally convincing in every respect, and he brings Hal to life with the same mesmerizing vigor that he did to his character Leo Tolstoy in his Oscar nominated role in The Last Station (2010). It is nothing short of remarkable to see him expand as an actor at the young age of 83.
In addition, Goran Visnjic brings understated warmth and depth to Andy, Hal’s young lover. It is evident that he sincerely cares about Hal, and the scenes between the two when Hal learns he has terminal cancer is both tender and bittersweet. It is a tribute to Mr. Visnjic that he could be so convincing here playing a gay man and as the mysterious, hot blooded lover of Tilda Swinton in The Deep End (2001).
This is an unpretentious, romantic film on several levels, not the least of which is the reluctant romance that develops between the emotionally wounded McGregor and Anna, played by the beguiling French actress Melanie Laurent.
We last saw Ms. Laurent as the young woman who narrowly escapes the clutches of the self-described “Jew hating” Nazi Colonel Hans Lanza, played in an Oscar winning performance by Christoph Waltz, in Quentin Tarentino’s wildly uneven yet completely mesmerizing Inglorious Basterds (2009).
Here, Anna and MacGregor’s Oliver become gradually romantically intertwined following a chance meeting at a costume party. Like a rusty piece of iron and a tiny, cute human magnet, they slowly are drawn into each other’s arms despite their doubts and skepticism. They are sweet and completely believable as two psychologically wounded souls who contemplate whether true love is anything more than a nonsensical delusion.
I would be remiss if I did not pay a small tribute to Hal’s little dog that Oliver brings into his small home. As Oliver frequently addresses the attentive canine as you would a counselor, you see the dog’s thoughts reflected in subtitles. Not only is it an ingenious comedic tool, but it leaves you with a feeling that Oliver would be far better off if his loyal canine friend could actually talk.
While I know from talking to several friends that they were less than impressed with Beginners, finding it too slow paced, I found its meandering spirit to actually be its strength. Not only is this a love story about being true to yourself, but it also operates as a metaphor for the fundamental principle that life is a struggle for everyone. Happiness is to be found in the end by those who simply refuse to give up or give in.