… Beginners (Film Review)
If you are even the slightest bit of a romantic, prepare to be putty in the hands of Beginners. This sentimental and introspective film expertly plucks the heartstrings of audiences through brilliant performances, a beautiful style and an involving plot.
The film follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he strikes up a romance with French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent). When the two first meet, she can’t speak due to laryngitis. This forces emotion to be communicated so much more through subtle movement and facial gestures, and it’s amazing how it makes the romantic thrill even stronger.
These intimate scenes are carried by McGregor’s mastery of performing understated emotion. While there are no big Oscar moment for him to really make his mark with, the man puts so much effort into the little moments that the audience is easily absorbed by. Thankfully the screenplay gives him ample time to demonstrate it.
Happily too, Laurent can totally hold her own against McGregor. As elegant as she is beautiful, her performance does justice to Anna’s mysterious allure. The character’s emotional fragility is gently handled by Laurent, who avoids becoming pathetically weepy with grace and a good sense of timing for when to amp up the sentiment.
Fortunately, there is an intense chemistry between the two actors right from the outset. An understanding exists between them that envelopes the audience in romance without making them feel like they’re intruding.
Mike Mills’ direction is inspired and beautifully moody at all the right moments. Shots are carefully chosen to evoke emotion, and the scenery is gorgeous. In particular, his use of light creates romantic atmosphere perfectly.
Beginners occasionally puts together montages of animation accompanied by Oliver’s introspective voice over. It’s a risky technique, and could really break the sense of immersion the film successfully crafts up to these points, but McGregor’s nuanced narration, and Mills’ choice and editing of images, combine to create some really touching sequences.
The soundtrack perfectly matches the film’s tone at every turn. Old jazz tracks are seamlessly incorporated, and add a buoyancy and nostalgia to proceedings. It gives Beginners the feel of a classic love story, one with a real heartfelt quality, rather than a modern production polished by market research. However, there is one piano track the film seems to be using as its theme song, which has not only long lost its impact after being repeated for the twentieth time, but has become downright tedious when playing over the closing credits.
The second and slightly weaker plot thread, told through Oliver’s flashbacks, tells of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). After the death of his wife of 40 years, Hal reveals he has always been gay and begins to explore his sexuality at 75, before being diagnosed with cancer, and eventually passing away.
Mills, doubling as screenwriter, draws upon the real late in life coming out of his own father, and the story feels intimate and authentic because of that. But the film seems to trade on the novelty of an old man exploring his sexuality for only a short while, and it’s a real pity when it abandons innovation towards the end and falls into cliché’s.
This is not to discredit Plummer, as he moves between enthusiastic, doddering old fool and pitiable, feeble old man with all the ability you would expect from a veteran actor.
Sadly, Mills’ personal attachment to the story gets in the way of his editing skills, and the film definitely loses its way towards the end. While both plotlines build solidly for an emotional finale, they try to cram in just one too many moments, so there is relief the film is finally over rather than a cathartic payoff at the end.
That means if you’re looking for an escape after a tough day at work, avoid Beginners. There is an infinite sadness permeating the film, from Hal’s tragically drawn out death all the way through Oliver’s seemingly doomed romance. That’s not to say it doesn’t have moments of brevity, which manage to feel natural simply by realistically reflecting the highs and lows of a relationship. But upon leaving the cinema, the audience looks as if they’ve been through a hell of a lot.
That being said, don’t put off seeing itfor too long either. Although there is only so much punishment the heart can bear, if you’re up for the challenege, Beginners is a deeply moving film that provides many moments of pause and self reflection, and is not to be missed.