Beginners

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: December 28, 2011
Coming out decidedly late in the “gayme”

Mike Mills’ second feature is a thoughtful discussion of relationships that don’t ever seem to stick and the aftermath of a marriage of convenience. It has a strong comic book feel due not only to the hero’s day job (notably employing ink, pens and paper to create a “look” for The Sads’ upcoming CD release) but also a penchant for declaiming truths through graffiti (accompanied by a zesty, colourful waltz courtesy of composers Roger Neill, David Palmer and Brian Reitzell: their score also features a toe tappin’ array of “piano roll” tracks and some stellar French horn and trumpet solos) and an engaging Jack Russell terrier whose screen-captioned thoughts provide wry bits of silent humour.

Ewan McGregor is ideally cast as Oliver Fields. The late thirties artist seems doomed to end up alone: every time someone verges into long-term possibility, the eject button is most assuredly pushed. Frequent flashbacks (where Keegan Boos does a fine job playing the younger version of Oliver) reveal spot-on intuition, boldly asking his stoic, inventive mom (Mary Page Keller) if there is “something wrong” between his parents only to be given a lesson in the joy of screaming as the cathartic cure-all to pain and suffering. Many decades later (2003), the screen becomes a collage of the era with a sequence of stills—a technique that is deftly utilized on several other occasions to assist with the film’s time travelling/mores agenda. It is the matriarch’s death that launches the production’s primary narrative thread: safely widowed, 75-year-old Hal Fields (done up with emotional panache by Christopher Plummer even if the wardrobe department goes a bit overboard in draping the freshly out gay blade) is finally able to abandon nameless bathroom sex and try to land a full-blown poofter of his own.

Soon, Andy (Goran Visnjic is thoroughly credible as the much younger beau who, having been rejected by his own father, is quite content to give nearly all of his love to a new-found Daddy) is on the scene and moves Hal to the top of his considerable bedmate list. No worries: better to have loved and shared than never to have loved at all. All of these years later, Oliver is surprisingly understanding as he finally gets the answer to his long ago question with nary a yell much less shriek required to work through the shock of senior sexuality unleashed. Sadly, the big C makes an unwelcome arrival into the newly minted queer’s body and it’s a race against time to make the most of being with a man “who is fun”—inducing a bit of partner envy from the perpetually lonesome son.

After nature takes its course, and more alone/abandoned than ever, a beautiful, temporarily mute patient (see cartoon allusions, above) lands on the brooding Sigmund Freud’s coach at an anything goes costume party: it’s love at first pen scratch. Mélanie Laurent playing Anna, when her voice does return, proves to be the artistic apple (films, in her case) of Oliver’s ever-inventive eye. Better still, they both have a long history of driving others from their lives. How’s that for a dramatically loaded common bond?

Once the principals are all on stage, the film’s overall pace sags even as its telling moments (a father’s love envy is handled with honest compassion) and carefully inserted touches of social commentary make their marks.

But with McGregor and Plummer putting on a master’s exhibition of timing, tone and tenacity, it’s clear the notion of “beginners”—from its theatrical roots—merely applies to taking one’s place and drawing on deep experience rather than embracing a long repressed feeling for the very first time. JWR

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