A review of "Beginners," a wistful, wonderful film about love — romantic and filial — starring Ewan McGregor.
Mike Mills’ wistful, wonderful “Beginners” feels a lot like life — it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry (well, me anyway) and, by its end, you’ll feel as if you’ve learned something. At its center is Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man in his late 30s facing both an end and a beginning. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), whom we come to know through flashbacks, has died of cancer; a few years prior to his death, he came out of the closet as a gay man. Oliver, who watched his father learn to live again only to say goodbye, now is taking tentative steps toward finding love in his own life, with Anna (Mélanie Laurent, of “Inglourious Basterds”), a lovely woman who nonetheless brings her own complications.
With an intricate, clever screenplay that takes us back and forth in Oliver’s life, “Beginners” starts with Oliver packing up Hal’s home after the funeral. (“Four years after he came out, he died in this room,” we’re told in a sad voice-over.) Most things left there can be disposed of, but not Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur (played, remarkably well, by a canine actor named Cosmo), who is himself starting a new life. Bits and pieces of scenes follow each other in a delicate flow: Hal on the phone with Oliver, thrilled to report on his first visit to a gay bar; Arthur, in the present, running after a man who looks like Hal; Oliver as a child, with his elegant mother; Hal gallantly thanking his oncologist, despite having just received terrible news; Oliver and Andy (Goran Visnjic), Hal’s much-younger lover, forging a tentative friendship; Anna and Oliver’s quirky first date; a quiet, devastating last look between father and son, filled with silent love.
Mills, whose own father inspired the story, carefully and remarkably walks a tightrope here: The scenes dealing with Hal’s illness could easily become maudlin; the focus on Arthur (whose subtitled thoughts we sometimes see) skates dangerously close to cuteness; a film so focused on death and loss could be overwhelmingly sad. But he deftly avoids all such excesses, due to the marvelous skill of the actors (McGregor and Plummer simply become father and son, before our eyes) and the film’s gentle, such-is-life tone. We’re all beginners in love, Mills is telling us, whatever its flavor — and all we can do is believe in it, wherever we happen to find it.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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