film review: beginners
Beginners is the story of 38 year old Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his relationship with his recently out of the closet, terminally ill father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Beginning just after his death, the story of Hal’s last four years is told through flashbacks, in parallel with the narrative of Oliver’s present. In the months after his father’s passing, Oliver finds himself smitten with French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), but their time together is tinged by an inherited sadness. As he packs up the remnants of his father’s life, Oliver grieves not only the loss of his mother and father, but the joys they were denied.
Beginners is a well crafted piece of storytelling. Mike Mills has used everything at his disposal to tell a story with striking honesty and simplicity. There are cartoons, narrated snapshots, graffiti and a subtitled dog. This playful method of storytelling does not prove a distraction from the central narrative, rather it serves to illustrate Oliver’s point of view in a very immersive way. These still images and snippets of text give us something very tangible, they show us how Oliver thinks and feels rather than forcing him to speak in exposition.
Mills has created a superbly balanced film. Some of the most poignant moments happen in the middle of light-hearted interactions. For example, the scene when Hal’s boyfriend, Andy claims to have brought a slug into the hospital, or when the hospice nurse attempts to do his hair. The characters are warm, round and compellingly flawed. The love story between Oliver and Anna might be too quirky cute for some people, but in general the film is understated enough that only the desperately cynical should find the twee to outweigh the good.
Beginners really soars in the moments we share with Oliver and his family. His mother is disarmingly eccentric and the character of Hal is completely beguiling as an out-and-proud senior citizen. Most importantly this film is entertaining. Even with a plot all but laid out at their feet, the characters are endlessly surprising.
See this film on a sunny afternoon. Leave the cinema feeling fragile and leave enough time to call your parents before they fall asleep in front of Dalziel and Pascoe for another night. See this film with your dog if you can wrangle it, or see it alone if you want to have a low-key cry. See this film – it really is a remarkable story.