By Don Simpson | July 13, 2011
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a 38-year old artist dealing with the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Seemingly destined to be sad and alone, Oliver has a long history of failed relationships. It is not without purpose that Oliver meets his next mate at a costume party. Hiding behind a shield of anonymity — in a Freud costume no less! — Oliver begins to let down his guard and fall in love with a French Jewish actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), who is rendered mute by laryngitis.
Anna communicates with Oliver by scribbling notes and crude drawings in a pocket spiral notebook; yet her keen observational skills, specifically in noticing Oliver’s inherent sadness, are in no way hindered by her speechlessness. The same can be said of Oliver’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, which he inherited from his father. Arthur thoughtfully comments on Oliver’s life choices — via subtitles, of course — like a solo canine Greek chorus.
History and memories weigh heavily upon Oliver as he navigates his relationship with Anna. (Even the film’s soundtrack serves as a constant reminder of the importance of the past.) Flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood showcase his parents’ dysfunctional and loveless marriage, while the handful of years that his father lived after Oliver’s mother’s (Mary Page Keller) death prove that true love is possible even to an elderly and dying gay man. Yes, Hal is gay; he always has been, but it is not until Hal is 75 before he feels free enough to wave his pride flag. This is where Hal’s significantly younger lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic), comes into the picture.
Masterfully constructed, the endless barrage of flashbacks mesh with the present seamlessly and naturally. Whereas most films that are this heavily reliant upon flashbacks are riddled by a herky-jerky rhythm, the non-linear structure of Beginners is practically unnoticeable. Most importantly, the flashbacks serve a major purpose in the narrative. Hal may not have lived long enough to witness Oliver as he finally follows his father’s “it is never too late to make a fresh start” example, but it is Oliver’s memories of his father’s waning years that motivate him to try to make his relationship with Anna work.
Of course, only in Hollywood will characters like Hal and Oliver both find perfect partners exactly when they need them the most. That is Beginners‘ only flaw and it is one that I can easily forgive. Otherwise, writer-director Mike Mills’ (Thumbsucker) film is as perfect as a tearjerker, romantic drama can get in my book. Very few films handle family skeletons, the loss of loved ones, and the rediscovery of love (in both straight and queer relationships, no less) with such agility. Oh, and just be sure to keep lots of tissues close at hand, Beginners is guaranteed to conjure up some tears.