Thursday, June 9, 2011
What's mostly appreciated is the fine work of Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer as father and son. McGregor plays Oliver, a tentative graphic artist overcoming the loss of his father to terminal cancer (not a spoiler), this just a few years after discovering that his father, Hal was gay...he came out of closet at the ripe age of 75, shortly after the death of his wife. What is clearest of all is that both Oliver and Hal are newbies, both discovering and surprising themselves, shortly after coming out Hal takes up with a much younger lover named Andy (Goran Visnjic); shortly after his father's death Oliver takes up with a beguiling French actress (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), and the back-and-forth narrative structure informs Oliver's present, but artfully presents a rich relationship between father and son, one that may have truly peaked after death itself. With such ripe reflection, Mills displays something raw and personal, but also truly affecting.
What's quietly revelatory about the character of Hal, not just in how Plummer plays him, but in how he's presented is that here's a senior gay character in a movie that not only granted permission to exhibit some form of sexuality, but that none of it used for comic fodder. There's a aching and liberated joy in Plummer's performance, perhaps akin to a kid in a candy store, that for the first time, this man is who he wanted to be in the first place. In the history of cinema, gay characters have always either been comic relief or sources of tragedy (at it's most offensive, they've been nearly sociopathic), and while political correctness has changed a bit in the past decades, replacing the tragic with unearned nobility (the comic relief has always stayed in fashion), what's refreshing and altogether graceful about Beginners is that Hal is allowed to date a younger man, and it's treated as no big deal, and that while Hal may make various nods at caricature (as when watching The Life and Times of Harvey Milk with his senior gay pals, or reveling in gay pride memorabilia, or putting out a gay personal ad), he never becomes one. Nor is he left off the hook for perhaps not being the greatest father to Oliver as a child. The film leapfrogs from the past to present to near present, informing us and Oliver of all the baggage on the outset of his new relationship with the girl he obviously really likes. The role likely would have been unbearable (no offense to the director, who it's clearly modeled on) if not for the charismatic sparkle of Ewan McGregor, who in one of his strongest performances to date, gives Oliver, a painfully shy reserved man, a deeply felt sense of longing and melancholy. B+