Saturday, July 2, 2011
In Mike Mills’s Beginners Hal (Christopher Plummer) begins his life as an openly gay man after coming out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), at the ripe old age of 75. He also begins his decline toward death after finding out that he has terminal cancer. When his father dies, Oliver inherits his father’s highly intelligent dog, a Jack Russell terrier with separation anxiety and a sardonic humor rendered in subtitles, and tries to begin a relationship with a young French woman, Anna (Melanie Laurent), after a number of failed relationships.
In flashbacks and by means of slideshows that characterize the decades of Oliver and Hal’s lives, Beginners often charts Oliver’s deep loss and Hal’s brave steps to actualize his sexual identity with a whimsical tone, but this is a serious movie about coming to grips with the past and dealing with the realities of the present. With sensitivity and humor, once again delivering a solid performance, McGregor plays Oliver as a lost soul who wonders how his mother endured decades of marriage knowing that her husband was gay. Confused but impressed by Hal’s explanation of how he tried to play the straight husband in order to make the marriage last, Oliver attempts to make his new relationship work.
As Anna, Oliver’s girlfriend, Melanie Laurent shows a talent for very expressive acting. As demonstrated in Inglourious Basterds, Laurent uses the cast of her eyes and the movements in her lips to communicate a lot. Fittingly, she gets to play her first scene, when she meets Oliver at a costume party, virtually silently. Explaining that she has laryngitis, dressed appropriately as Charlie Chaplin, Anna communicates by means of notes on a pad of paper, but Laurent’s lively eyes and the uncanny animation in her lips communicate even more, making her performance a very engaging one.
A quiet and very understated film, Beginners is not an entirely happy one. Oliver loses his father. It looks like he might lose Anna as well. But the film is always worth watching for its humor, for the performance of a very talented Jack Russell, as well as for the three main human performances. Christopher Plummer’s subtle performance as Hal, an old man spreading his wings to live out his true sexual identity as his life is ending, is a believable, dignified performance that is definitely worth watching.