Explores the hilarity, confusion, and surprises of love through the evolving consciousness of Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Oliver meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Mélanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away. This new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who – following 44 years of marriage – came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energised, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. The upheavals of Hal’s new honesty, by turns funny and moving, brought father and son closer than they’d ever been able to be. Now Oliver endeavors to love Anna with all the bravery, humor, and hope that his father taught him.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Writer/director Mike Mills’ story of resilience is a misty-eyed memory piece that cautions of the dangers of unrealised potential.
a misty-eyed memory piece
The semi-autobiographical triptych examines the evolution of the romantic life of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a glum graphic designer whose inventory of past relationships reveals an inclination towards self-sabotage ('I don't really believe that they’re going to work so I make sure that they don’t," he reflects), and the emboldening impact of his own father’s late-life coming out.
As the film opens in 2003, a heavy-hearted Oliver sorts through his newly-deceased father’s belongings. Hal (Christopher Plummer) has succumbed to an especially aggressive type of cancer, just a short few years into his exuberant new life as an openly gay man. We discover through Oliver’s narrated flashback that his parents’ four-decade marriage was affectionate but passionless, owing to both parties’ mid-century suppression of a significant side of themselves (her faith; his sexuality). Hal’s dear wife’s death released him from his pact, and six months later, the widower took to living and loving with honesty, and unbridled enthusiasm. 'I don’t just want to be theoretically gay, I want to do something about it," he declares.
Scattered memories of Hal’s inextinguishable life force inform Oliver’s present, as he grieves the whole-hearted man he was finally coming to know. Hal’s newfound fearlessness – in taking on a new relationship and finally, in the face of death – weighs on Oliver’s mind, sitting in contrast as it does, with his own historical skittishness with matters of the heart.
To form a comprehensive picture of Oliver’s romantic make-up, Mills blends elements of the distant past, the present, and the recent past, to document the fledgling days of his coupling with Anna (Melanie Laurent). The two met at a costume party in the weeks following his father’s death, where his Sigmund Freud was bowled over by her mute beauty. Silenced by laryngitis, she’d come as a note-taking Charlie Chaplin, and her insightful scribblings ('Why are you at a party if you’re sad?,’ she enquires) pricked Oliver’s curiosity. Her succinct outreach also ties-in neatly with Arthur the omniscient Jack Russell, inherited from Hal. With doggy subtitling, Mills has the bemused terrier provoke Oliver to moments of introspection (fortunately, the director uses the device sparingly).
To depict Oliver and Anna embarking on their dizzying courtship, Mills bathes them in the sun-drenched glow of Southern California light sources, and has them skate through hotel corridors to a jazzy piano soundtrack. He lavishes them in the rose-tinted retrospection of Oliver’s memory, and keeps melancholy close by, to act as a counterpoint. (Suffice it to say, Anna is equally as inept as Oliver at taking relationships beyond their beginnings.)
A bittersweet visualist himself, Mills frames Oliver in various states of isolation, and subverts the character’s skills as an artist to create yet more unfulfilled beginnings. (He has Oliver create an unsolicited opus of the History of Sadness for an unappreciative indie band’s liner notes.)
At its heart a story of a father’s lasting legacy to his son, Beginners is a deeply-felt call to boldness in all its forms, whether it’s romantic, parental or septuagenarian love.