Sunday 1 January 2012


Starring Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent and Christopher Plummer, Mike Mills' Beginners is out now on DVD. Watch the trailer and read my review, next...

Based on director Mike Mills' own experiences with his father, Beginners tells the dramatised story of how, at the age of 75, his widowed father chose to reveal to his son Oliver that he was gay, and then 4 years later died of cancer, leaving Oliver to figure out exactly who his father was and how that has affected the man he has become. Cutting between Oliver's time with his mother, father and new girlfriend, Beginners sees Ewan McGregor delivering his best performance in years.

Oliver is a complex and insular chap who, at the forceful demand of his friends, goes to a fancy dress party dressed as Sigmund Freud (I wonder what Freud would have to say about that?) and then spends the night with a girl who's come to the party dressed as a guy. This is one instant where Oliver projects his father's life onto his own whilst trying to understand him, but the film is more about Oliver's full blown existential crisis, brought on as much by his own middle life malaise as it was by his father's coming out and death.

Of all the maverick music video directors of the late 90's/early 2000's creative heyday, Mike Mills was the one who, until now, hadn't fulfilled his potential cinematically. To my mind the best music video director not to be given his own 'The Works of' DVD compilation, by blending documentary and fiction, Mills' music videos were easily identifiable as his, just as easily as Michel Gondry's or Spike Jonze's were. His only previous feature was 2005's Thumbsucker, a somewhat underwhelming but original take on a misfit teen drama. Having spent the last few years focussing on photography and graphic design, what was it that attracted him back to the director's chair?

It's clear that this project is very personal to him, and can be seen as both a cathartic exercise and a stint on the psychiatrist's couch. Of all the things parents can do to their children, a father revealing that they're gay following the death of his wife must place the children in a state of emotional flux. It's a very emotionally stunted film at times, with Oliver quietly struggling to deal with his father's onset of cancer, as well as learning to be in a successful romantic relationship and remembering his childhood being raised by his mother. Does it mean anything that Oliver chose to be with a Jewish girl, knowing that his mother was Jewish? Why has Oliver kept his father's pet so close to him after his death? He says his father's homosexuality wasn't an issue for him, but how true is that? These are the kind of questions Mills' script is asking us throughout, hoping to find answers before the film's resolution.

Far from being solely about his relationship with his father, Beginners also features an optimistic love story between McGregor's Oliver and Melanie Laurent's Anna. Oliver's relationship with Anna is very sweet, and could so easily have come across as overly cutesy with a different cast or director. McGregor and Laurent deserve praise for their performances, keeping their respective characters just the right side of hipster doofus-ness. Showing us a kind of effortless and unknowing coolness (I expect sales of McGregor's striped jumper to go up), it's a realistic romantic comedy for grown-ups that doesn't try to appeal to a wider audience by acting like any other recent additions to the genre. Hey, it even manages to make a talking dog seem normal.

Undoubtedly the best thing about the film is the performance of Christopher Plummer, a veteran actor undergoing an astonishing career renaissance, now at the age of 82. As an old man learning to live his life without regret, Plummer's Hal tries to recapture his youth and make up for some lost time, discovering the simple joys of house music and love with his new boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic). It's often very moving to see Plummer's character finally get to be who he wants to be, making it all the more tragic when he starts to lose his battle with cancer.

It wouldn't be wrong to expect Beginners to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and it should most certainly garner a Supporting Actor nod for the excellent Christopher Plummer. As for Mike Mills, he's provided a great calling card for what's to come. As bright future's go, this is just the beginning.


Special Features: Beginners animated promo, A Short Film About Making Beginners, Feature commentary with Mike Mills.

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