Christopher Plummer has been nominated all over the place for his supporting role here, and deservedly so. He’s taken the Golden Globe and he’s nominated in the same category for tonight’s Oscar presentation. Plummer plays a man who has lost his wife after 44 years of marriage, and soon after takes a much younger gay lover. He’s always been gay, you see – and his wife even knew before she married him. They’d make it work, she told him, and they did – after a fashion. Not long after Plummer’s character Hal takes his lover he is diagnosed with a terminal cancer.
But it’s the story of Hal’s son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) that most interested me. Because of the unusual household in which Oliver was brought up, he has trouble with long-term relationships, trouble getting close to people. He ‘knows’ that things are doomed even before they start. He’s had several failures. Then again so has Anna (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds ), a french actress he meets at a party. Their affair starts off tentatively, and then takes off, before they both worry that it will not last, that something will go wrong. They seem made for each other, and I found myself pulling for them to make it. But some prophecies are self-fulfilling, though not always fatal.
I very much liked the style of Mike Mills direction. I’m not sure how to describe it but there were repeated scenes and picture montages that put the time-line or themes in context. The technique was very effective, and I liked it a lot. Mills has extensive background in directing music videos and in graphic design, and it shows. The film deals with death and grief, the complex relationships that are possible between mother and son, father and son, mother and father. And not only that, but what that all means for the ability of two young adults to open themselves up for a new relationship, after several failed ones. Memory and consciousness play their role as well in preparing us for living in the world of human relationships. Sometimes the most loving and safest relationship is with a pet: Oliver has inherited his father’s Jack Russell terrier, and he’s talking to him as he introduces him around his new space. All of a sudden a dialogue bubble pops up over the dog’s head with (paraphrasing) “I know 150 words, I just can’t talk.” Anna appears to be mute as well, when they first meet as she writes everything on notebook paper. Later, she begins to talk, tentatively at first. Mills is obviously concerned with the difficulty of real communication between people.
Beginners is a sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, sometimes sweet film that tugs at you in several ways. Not a film for everyone, but I found it new and refreshing and a romantic film that got me to thinking.