Beginners

A couple of weeks ago, I received this email from a friend:

Nevan,

Drop what you are doing, get yourself to a cinema1, and see Beginners. (You can thank me later.)

[Redacted]

Now, it’s hard to say no to something like that, and I decided it was a great opportunity to go see a movie I had no pre-impressions of. (This method worked great several years ago when some high school friends dragged me to American Splendor.) So I put it in my mind that I’d go see it soon.

A couple of days later, I happened to walk by the poster for Beginners, somewhat ruining my plan to go in knowing nothing. All I took in were the actors. Oh!, I thought, trying not to look too closely at the poster for the movie I was trying to remain ignorant about. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and that actress from Cashback. Certainly sounds like a Britishy good time.

As luck would have it, I was already planning on seeing The Tree of Life that afternoon with another friend.2 I called ahead to see if she’d rather meet for Beginners instead. That’s how I wound up at this movie.

I should point out here that “that actress from Cashback” is Emilia Fox, who also happens to not be in this movie. In fact, I had mistaken Mélanie Laurent (of Inglourious Basterds fame) for her. Just so we’re on the same page, I sat down expecting a British indie film.

The movie begins without speech, with a quiet montage of Oliver (McGregor) cleaning out his father’s (Plummer) house after he has passed away. Then Oliver starts speaking, and I realize that McGregor’s trying to do an American accent. OK, I think, this must be about Americans. Indeed it is. Even Plummer is playing an American as best he can. (For some reason, Old Man Voice seems to hold up fairly well in the transition across the Atlantic, but still has a bit of uncanniness, cf. Ian McKellen in The Shadow.3)

We start to get some background. Oliver’s mother died a few years back, leaving his father, Hal, to come out of the closet and live his final five years as an older gay man. At this point I look over to my friend and acknowledge that we had seen the trailer for this together.

The movie starts to weave together two stories (or so). One is of Oliver and Hal after their mother/wife has died. The other is of Oliver after Hal has passed away. Still upset by his father’s death, Oliver is coerced into going out with some friends to a costume party, dressed as Freud.4 This is where Anna (Laurent, not Fox) enters the picture. She looks like she’s dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and after another patient gets up, plops herself down on the couch in front of Oliver Freud, ready for a session. She doesn’t speak and instead starts to write in a notebook, blaming it on laryngitis. (At first I think she’s just trying to stick to the silent movie look of her costume. I also still think she’s Emilia Fox.) She has Oliver pegged immediately, asking him why he’s come to a party if he’s so sad. This insight into him is the basis of their developing connection.

It’s an exciting way for a relationship to start: one of the partners able only to nod and write little bits in a notebook, the other doing his best to make out what he can of her personality. They fall asleep together the first night in her hotel, and when she speaks a little the next morning, I start to piece together that she’s Laurent. The development and growth of their relationship is the high point of the movie.

We start to get a third story as well, of Oliver and his mother when he’s just a boy, his father always off doing work at the museum. I don’t want to give much more of the story away, but it starts to become clear that Oliver undermines his romantic relationships in part because his parents never seemed happy, and that there is something of his mother’s off-kilteredness in Anna.

The movie is quite beautiful and at times moving. I felt like it slowed toward the end, but is still worth seeing. Mary Page Keller’s performance as Georgia, Oliver’s mother, is especially fun. Beginners will appeal most strongly to romantic young people who want to keep hope for love alive, but perhaps haven’t quite found it or figured it out yet.5

  1. She has spoken roughly like this since she became an Anglophile. (She’s specifically enamored with Ireland, but I can’t find a word for that, so it’s a parenthetical in a footnote instead.) ↩︎

  2. Next time I’ll make up names, I promise. ↩︎

  3. Or don’t. It’s really not a good movie. Tim Curry’s American accent is also pretty uncanny in The Shadow, and downright bizarre in his performance as Dale the Whale in the Season 2 finale of Monk, “Mr. Monk Goes to Jail”. ↩︎

  4. His fake Austrian accent is a bit better than his American accent. ↩︎

  5. This applies to most of my friends, and I don’t think my Anglophile friend will mind me pointing out that it applies particularly well to her. ↩︎