Beginners

Beginners

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Do you enjoy romance films? Young man afraid of commitment means feisty young woman approved of by his cute dog? If so, you will probably enjoy this film. If not, you will probably still enjoy it. It has much more going for it than the deceptively slight plotline suggests. It's a refreshingly intelligent entry in the romance canon that also takes a wide ranging look at human relationships more generally, and at the ways in which our individual life courses are shaped by the families and the society we grow up in.

Ewan McGregor is Oliver. Shorn of his usual cockiness, he plays a bruised and withdrawn character with restrained charm. The woman he falls for is Mélanie Laurent's Anna, a young actress whose life is a succession of empty hotel rooms and phone calls from a father whose neediness exhausts her. The dog is Arthur, played by rescued stray Cosmo, a loyal yet taciturn character whose occasional subtitled comments reveal a poignant unease that parallels' the human protagonists' generational insecurity.

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Then there's Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer). By the time the story begins he is already dead, but Oliver's attempts to come to terms with his own problems require a journey back into the past to understand what happened to his parents. A long marriage with chaste kisses, carefully managed frustration on his mother's part. After she died, his father came out as gay. The tremendous energy and passion with which he embraced his new life seemed almost unquenchable even in the face of terminal lung cancer.

Alongside the powerful human drama at its heart, Beginners is intriguing due to the way it situates gay experiences and gay history as part of the mainstream and looks at the way the wounds inflicted by historical homophobia have shaped wider society. The awkward attempts at understanding between Oliver and his father's boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) reveal the ways in which prejudice can create paranoia and the need to make allowances that is essential to any successful adult relationship. There is a suggestion that alternative relationship models long accepted within the gay community are gradually coming to seem like an option for others, and with this comes an awareness that all romances exist within the context of other, often equally important emotional affiliations.

Wisely eschewing easy solutions, Beginners asks as many questions as it answers but is, overall, a profoundly optimistic tale. It's a real treat for anybody who likes cinema that appeals to both heart and brain.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2011
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A young man is rocked by two announcements from his elderly father: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has a young male lover.
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Director: Mike Mills

Writer: Mike Mills

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Cosmo

Year: 2010

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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