Beginners: a small film with a big heart–and a dog

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Melanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor in a scene from “Beginners.”

Beginners, an indie film from 2011, won me over tonight. I’d heard good things about it, and I knew it starred Ewan McGregor, one of my absolute favorite actors. The actress who played my favorite character in Inglourious BasterdsMelanie Laurent,  is featured as his love interest.

But while there is love and humor and relationships, this is no rom-com. It’s 2003, and Oliver, a 38-year-old graphic artist, finds himself dealing with two very difficult bits of news from his father.  First, Oliver discovers his 75-year-old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) is gay and ready to come out of the closet. “I don’t just want to be theoretically gay. I want to do something about it,” Hal earnestly tells his son. After more than 40 years of marriage and living a lie with Oliver’s late mother ( who knew he was gay but said she could “fix” him), he doesn’t want to hide any longer.

Cristopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor star as father and son facing some hard realities as they search for love and friendship.

And so Hal gets involved with various gay pride groups, makes lots of new friends and even gets the sort of tender romantic relationship with a younger man ( that handsome gent Goran Visnjic, sporting an unfortunate John Porter Security Man Shag) he’s hoped to find. He’s suddenly discovered his joie de vivre. Oliver–who never saw real love between his parents, only a polite cordiality–looks on with interest.

Poor Oliver is an uptight guy–he’s sad, he’s lonely and he yearns for a lasting, loving relationship, something that has eluded him.  You don’t have to be told this; you can see in McGregor’s expressive eyes.

I said two difficult bits of news. Just when Hal is enjoying his new freedom of expression, he is diagnosed with lung cancer.

The movie is narrated by McGregor and features flashbacks to the childhood that helped mold into the adult he’s become. We follow Oliver’s relationship with his terminally ill father (his love for his dad is so touching), and later, his blossoming romance with a lovely French actress, who is as emotionally skittish as Oliver. There are a lot of serious moments, and at one point I was boo-hooing (keep the tissues handy).

But  there are lighter moments as well, and it’s never melodramatic; these seem like real people in real houses and offices, not actors emoting on some Hollywood soundstage.

It’s not for everyone; it moves at a leisurely pace and there isn’t a lot of action.  But as one reviewer said, it has an innate sweetness. Beginners offers plenty of humanity with a literate script ( based on the real-life story of the writer-director’s relationship with his late father) and wonderful performances by all involved.  Not to mention the cutest Jack Russell Terrier who “speaks” in subtitles to add a bit of lightness here and there (and it works. I fell in love with Arthur). Ultimately, it is a life-affirming film.

I have to say this is the kind of small indie gem I would love to see Richard appear in from time to time, in between big budget productions and any stage work he might pursue. I think he would find such a project a satisfying and rewarding one and we would enjoy seeing him engage with good actors and a good script in an intimate setting.

Arthur, the adorable Jack Russell who provides delightful comedy relief and a real “awwww” factor to the film.

47 responses »

  1. Brilliant, honest and romantic (in the larger sense of the word). This movie was much greater then the sum of its parts, but it did have some fantastic parts. Thanks for getting this movie back into the public eye. Great post!

  2. Thank you for this lovely review, Angie. I liked the sound of this movie from the beginning (ahem 🙂 )
    and must see it. Maybe it didn’t get schmaltzy simply because it’s NOT a Hollywood vehicle – which sometimes lack subtlty – oh, bugger, how do you spell that word?

    Finished showering and dressing so now off to supermarket. Here I need the waving smiley!

    🙂

  3. Sounds like my kind of movie, I love a good character/dialogue-driven script, and I’ve always liked McGregor and Plummer. I’ll have to add it to my Quickflix queue. Thanks for the recommendation, angie. 🙂
    It sounds like the kind of movie I’d like to see Richard in too, between bigger projects as you say. Poor man, here we go again, lining up work for him!! 😉

    • I think the movie’s budget was only $3.5 million so obviously the actors didn’t this for the money. But I know from taking with John Sayles and Maggie Renzi that well-known actors who could command much larger salaries will often take roles in small indie films like this because they believe the project is so worthwhile.

      I still think of Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. 😉 Doesn’t he have pretty blue eyes, too? And Ewan is really good in this. You can see how he’s blindsided by the news his father shares with him and trying to work it all out in his head. It’s a very subtle performance, and not the kind of character we oft get to see him play. And lordie, I loved that dog!! It is his dad’s dog, and when he passes away, Oliver adopts him. I could only think of the late, great Lucky Cat.

      • I’ve been over to Quickflix already and added it to my queue! In all fairness to my husband, I’ve put it second after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as I don’t think it’s his kind of movie-not enough action!

        • Yeah, Benny says I am always watching “those British shows were people talk each other to death” LOL (although this is an American movie). Hey, but he did say he wanted to watch Strike Back together again soon. Action for him and RA for ME. 😉

          • My husband and I have watched SB together, but his reaction was offhand. If it weren’t for Richard, mine probably would be too!
            I’ve actually been found out with regards to my particular liking for Mr. Armitage. Hubby good-naturedly refers to him as “your boyfriend.”
            But no one is any the wiser still about just how deep my crush is and what ends I go to in order to satisfy it. THAT’s something I’ll continue to keep to myself! 😉

        • I could have gone on a “Sound of Music” theme tour in Salzburg but I decided to give it a miss! 😉 It was advertised all over the place! I’m not sure Mr. Plummer would be happy to be remembered by everybody as Captain von Trapp.. 🙂

      • I love, love, love Jack Russells ever since Frasier, since Eddie the dog in it was a Jack Russell too! 🙂 He was totally, utterly adorable! Plummer is still a very distinguished looking man! Ewan is a fantastic,multi-talented actor with great charisma. I’ll definitely watch this film! Sounds like my kind of movie! And I’d love to see RA in films like this! When you can tell they didn’t make it for the profit but because they wanted to convey something meaningful with it. Another such film is “Venus” with Peter O’Toole. Have you seen it, Angie? I can highly recommend it. An astonishing performance by O’Toole.

  4. This film keeps getting put in my suggestions at Netflix! So, based on your recommendation, I’ll add it to my list. I hope we get to see Richard in a lot of things. This drought is going to kill me! Oh my Grandma always had the biggest crush on CP, her favorite movie was The Sound of Music! She was a lot older that Plummer…she’d be 105 now…so it’s okay that we’re older that our sweety!!

    • In case you haven’t noticed, age has very little to do with who attracts us, who we want to know better, who excites our desires, even who we love. We can be “younger than springtime”, “as old as dirt”, or anywhere in between. Age and experience may inform our tastes, but basically they don’t change. Why should they? My self-image in dreams, who I truly am, remains ageless, so why shouldn’t my tastes be equally so? In waking life, I am aware of others’ perceptions, so I school my outward behaviour, but inside … well, you get the idea.

      • It’s amazing to look in the mirror and see myself! I certainly don’t feel my age! As a teen and twenty something, it always tickled my that my Granny would say those things. Now I totally get it! 🙂

        • I’ve been out with my eighty year old mother and her friends, aged in She has commented that she looks in the mirror and sees HER mother, not herself as she really is…she’s not that old!!!

          • Once upon a time, a perfume manufacturer ran a contest about why women wore their scent, you know, “25 words or less..” One of the winners was, “My grandmother lives with her 28-year-old fencing instructor, and she wears *scent name*.” If it works for you, why not?

          • “…aged in their 70’s. They giggle and chat like a group of teenagers.” I don’t know where those words disappeared to!

            • When I used to visit the senior citizen centers in the county, I noticed how much fun they generally had together. They laughed, they joked and teased, and none of them were spring chickens. There is a saying, “You have to grow older, but you do not have to grow old.” Good advice, I think.

  5. Now I haven’t seen this particular movie (though perhaps I should) but it sounds exactly like the kind of thing RA should do. Something about real people, their day to day lives, relationships and feelings. Not overshadowed by action and a fantastic setting. And playing a character who is just a real person, no “hero” and not drop dead gorgeous. Reasonably attractive, if he has to be (EMcG is reasonably attractive as well) but not the kind of attractive that makes the character a fantasy.

  6. I saw “Beginners” and loved it. The writing was so good, so genuine, I think that is what lured the actors. Yes, an indie film of this quality would be a natural for Richard, character-driven story + acting challenge + good chemistry with talented co-workers + good director = YES. I think the setting, action, etc., are less important than these factors. If Richard got a script like this, I have no doubt he’d take it.

    • Yes, I could envision Richard watching this and thinking, “I’d love to do something like this story.” It’s the sort of thing I have hoped to see him do–good script with warmth and intelligence, good director (one and the same in this case) good cast to play off of, an interesting, layered character with whom he could do a great deal. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

    • Thankfully, we all know RA’s not in this business for the money or the fame! Of course he’d take it! 🙂

      • I can think of a few scenarios that may tempt him to take something like this. If given a choice between this and a considerable role in a big action movie, probably not. Now is the time to make money when offered and try to establish himself. But if nothing else is on offer, he will do it, in a few years, when he can be fairly certain that he can always go back to the big things, he may do it as well. And if the small film itself is big, because very famous names are involved that guarantee that it gets it’s audience and recognition. I know I sound like a broken record, but there is no evidence that he ever let go a well-paid, high-profile project to do a small quality project. He is pragmatic in his choices. He only left SB when offered something as big as the Hobbit.

        • We’ll simply have to wait and see, won’t we? I don’t think any of us have the ability to foretell the future or read Richard Armitage’s mind, although a couple of people here have claimed I am psychic. 😉

          • Jane won;t be satisfied unless Richard is starving in a garret somewhere! He’s not a true artist because he continues to do lightweight projects instead of appearing in some obscure play and being paid peanuts.

            Sorry, ladies, for being so sarky but I thought Jane would have left that old broken record on the scrap heap by now. And this has been such a fun place to chat, Who needs party-poopers to put such a dampener on things. 😦

            Lighten up, Jane, for heaven’s sake and just enjoy Richard’s work. 🙂

            • I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree on certain topics, ladies, don’t you agree? Otherwise, I may have to close comments on this post and I have not done so yet, nor do I want to do so. Let’s try to be kind to each other and simply wish Richard Armitage the best in whatever he chooses to do. It’s his career and his life, after all.

              • Even Richard’s gaining the role of Thorin Oakenshield in “The Hobbit” isn’t enough for some people.

                There’s a difference between constructive criticism of Richard’s work and negativity – Richard doesn’t need so-called fans who aren’t happy with his career choices

                I enjoyed coming here for a bit of brightness in my day. But I’m quite happy to leave as I don’t need such negativity in my life either.

              • I hope you will continue to enjoy coming here. I am asking everyone to play nice. Anyone who does not abide by that role will be given fair warning, and if they fail to do so, I will be left with no choice other than to ban them. I created this blog to be a happy, upbeat, positive place and I will do my best to keep it so.

              • Understood. I don’t wish to spoil things and don’t wish to be banned from your blog.

          • @Angie, you took the words right out of my mouth! I was about to say the same thing. Who knows what he will/won’t do??? Don’t think even he knows for certain at this point in time. It’s fun to speculate though. 🙂

            • And I don’t want to stifle speculations about future career choices, sharing the types of projects and roles we’d love to see him involved with, and so forth. Heck, with this drought, it’s hard not to spend some time doing so! He’s so wonderfully talented, and we all have our ideas of what we’d most like to see him do. But he’s chosen the roles he’s chosen for his own reasons ande I am not going to second-guess him.
              The past is past, it’s water under the bridge, and now let’s look ahead. I truly DO believe he’s gpt a bright future ahead of him.

  7. Thanks for this superb review.

    I saw this fine film at the 2011 Sarasota Film Festival. I was lucky enough to get an interview with Director Mike Mills. As many of you have commented about this excellent review – you might be interested to read what Mr. Mills had to say about the film. It’s kind of short interview.. but his insights will increase your understanding of what Mills intentions were. The link is below.

    http://jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/director-mike-mills-talks-about-his-new-filom-beginners/

    • Thanks so much, Mike, for the comment and the link. It’s always great to get insight into the thoughts and goals of an artist. Much appreciated. I hope this post will lead to many more people discovering this little gem. 😀

  8. I loved this movie. It was excelllent and I too highly recommend it.

    CP is a gorgeous man. He is eloquent and elegant. He is original from my city and I actually have bumped into him downtown. He was very gracious (ladies I am not shy to introduce myself so I do believe that if I ever met RA, we would be having a conversation) Anyway, CP really is a beautiful man in person.

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