By Marc Glassman
Mike Mills, director and writer
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Oliver), Christopher Plummer (Hal), Melanie Laurent (Anna), Goran Visnjic (Andy)
Beginners is a stunning success and a surefire summertime hit for sophisticated audiences craving a film that is genuinely emotional and romantic. The big surprise is that the film is written and directed by Mike Mills, a very gifted graphic designer and music video auteur, whose previous foray into features was the funny, but definitely quirky Thumbsucker. While it was certainly easy to imagine Mills crafting a film that would be fun to watch and filled with interesting characters–and he has–it’s delightful to find that he’s capable of making work with depth and compassion.
Oliver, played with passive gravitas by Ewan McGregor, is a man on an emotional rebound. His father Hal has recently died, having already hit with Oliver with a serious emotional blow four years earlier–after 44 years of marriage, he declared that he was gay, shortly after his wife (and Oliver’s beloved mother) passed away. Oliver’s relationship to his father, played out in flashbacks that occupy at least half of the entire film, is complex and endearing.
Hal has been the light of Oliver’s life and, like his mother, the young man has tried desperately to connect to him. In the last four years of his life, Hal came out of his shell, found Andy, a young lover, and actually became happy. Oliver was allowed into Hal’s new world, filled with mainly older gay men, and he found himself accepted by them, especially after his father is diagnosed with cancer.
The life and death of Hal, a museum director, who lived a closeted existence until he was 75, mirrors that of Mike Mills’ own father. Perhaps that’s why Beginners is so affecting and deep. It also helps enormously that Mills cast Christopher Plummer in this superb role. The marvelous Canadian thespian is terrific as Hal; it will be shocking if he isn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. Plummer’s self-confidence and air of bemusement makes an interesting counterpoint to Hal’s rather melodramatic life. Plummer elevates Hal, making him a comic but somewhat heroic character.
While still recovering from Hal’s death, Oliver meets a funny, strange, elusive character from France. Anna is guarded like Oliver; both have found it difficult to connect with lovers, perhaps because of their complicated relationships with parents. (Anna refuses to answer her father’s many phone calls for reasons that are never entirely explained.) The two have fun together but it’s even obvious to Oliver’s dog (inherited from Hal, and way too quirky and wise) that he’ll find a way to destroy their romance.
That’s almost the case–but Mills has grown up enough not to let his characters off with an easy bittersweet ending. Melanie Laurent, as Anna, is just as strong an actor and character as Oliver and Hal. She, too, gets to assert herself before the film ends.
Beginners is a film about love: how hard it is to recognize it and how much you have to do to preserve and protect it. It has flaws: this is a film that is way too cute at times. But, ultimately, the comedy, the fine performances and the rich characters make this into a rich cinematic experience. See it and allow yourself to be surprised and delighted.