Review: ‘Beginners’ a fine film built on characters
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The simple synopsis of Mike Mills’ “Beginners” is that a man is shaken by two announcements from his elderly father: that the father, Hal, has terminal cancer, and that he is gay. This is not exactly the truth; the younger man, Oliver, is not quite shaken. He is surprised, but handles both bits of news with equanimity and tolerance.
Moreover, that simple synopsis doesn’t get to the heart of this balanced, sensitive, imaginative story. “Beginners” isn’t really about the delivery of the father’s news, or of how Oliver receives it, but about how they each live their lives against the backdrop of Hal’s illness and his sexual revelation. “Beginners” becomes one of those films – one of those rewarding films – that really isn’t about what happens, but about the people it happens to.
What “Beginners” is really about is Oliver and Hal (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer), and the romantic relationships they begin. Oliver meets an artsy, European beauty, Anna (Melanie Laurent). He wants to be intimate and committed, but the odd and insecure atmosphere that cloaked his childhood looms over him; he doesn’t know quite how to proceed. Hal, by contrast, has thrown off the past, and jumps as hard as he can into a romance with a much younger, more vigorous man, Andy (Goran Visnjic). For Hal, it scarcely even matters that Andy can’t return his level of commitment – this relationship isn’t about what he is getting back, but what he is putting into it. Namely, everything he’s got left.
Mike Mills (whose last film was 2005’s equally interesting “Thumbsucker”) could hardly have picked a pair of actors to portray this pair better. Christopher Plummer, as Hal, is being tabbed as a certain nominee for the best supporting actor Oscar, possibly even the front-runner, as he captures the release of restraint that comes with old age, impending death, and the shedding of a burdensome secret. But I’m not convinced that Plummer’s work is better than that of his co-star, Ewan McGregor, whose Oliver has sadness and uncertainty written all over his face, carried throughout his body.
Mills adds some touches – a Jack Russell terrier who communicates with Oliver; a lot of cutting back to scenes of the young Oliver with his offbeat mother (Mary Page Keller) – that border on self-conscious and gimmicky. It’s a credit to “Beginners” that even such potential missteps become charming instead of damaging.
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