Movie Review: “Beginners”

Written by Brent Holmes October 31, 2011

The year is 2011. This is what good movies looked liked.

Beginners is the driest of comedies. It is a film that deals with relationships and death in a 21st century way. It is a very artistic film, often playing like a european art film rather than something out coming from North American cinema.

Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, a comic artist trying to process his mother’s death and his father, Hal, (Christopher Plummer) last years as an openly gay man. The film runs two parallel plot lines, one dealing with Hal’s last years and the other covering Oliver’s struggle to understand what those years mean. The latter is covered through Oliver’s relationship with Anna, (Mélanie Laurent) an actress with her own sort of father issues. This is not McGregor’s first film dealing with this kind of subject matter, he previously starred in I Love You Philip Morris, however he is able to show greater emotion in Beginners. Laurent plays a vastly different role than that of her character in Inglourious Basterds, showing her true range.

Laurent and McGregor have great chemistry and are able to create a compelling and intimate relationship that could have very easily come off as awkward. The relationship is one in which the characters’ silences add a tremendous depth, when they first meet, Anna is suffering from laryngitis and can’t talk.

This is a film that raises more questions than it answers; characters will ask one another important questions and be answered with silence. Plummer’s character is an equally complex character and interesting character. His lasting marriage and life as a closeted homosexual raises interesting questions about his life. Was he lying to himself by staying in what is implied to be a loveless marriage? Did staying in that marriage help or hinder Oliver’s growth and development? Are duties and vows more important than personal happiness and does living the former hinder other people’s struggle between these two ideas?

Hal’s relationship to his younger boyfriend, Andy,(Goran Višnjić) is also well-played and ultimately helps Oliver to understand how to really love his own girlfriend. The film makes good use of the tension between McGregor and Višnjić’s characters as being around the same age they are put in a slightly completive position due to Hal’s different relationships to each of them.

Perhaps the funniest character in the film is the often ornery dog who speaks through subtitles. Like Garfield, it is not fully explored whether or not the dog can actually talk or a product of the character’s putting their subconscious thoughts into his responses. However, in the few scenes with these subtitles, they provide the most explicit humour of the film along with Oliver’s explanation of historical time periods through photographs and his experiments in vandalism.

Beginners puts films like The Kids Are All Right to shame. Rarely has so much depth been put into homosexual characters than in Beginners. Although, the relationship is viewed through a heterosexual character, this is a vastly different approach to exploring homosexual relationships as the film is more concerned with what can be learned about relationships from the gay community. To some, this may be considered insignificant due to its focus on Oliver and Anna but artistically it moves past the focus on gay rights and towards a more open-minded society.

My Rating: 9/10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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