Film review: Beginners

A handsome terrier lightens the load for a formidable trio grappling with life's mysteries, finds Duncan Wu

July 21, 2011

Credit: Focus/Everett


Directed by Mike Mills

Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent

Released in the UK on 22 July

My fear was that Beginners would be cute. The clue, as you'll know if you've seen the poster or the trailer, is the dog - a very good-looking Jack Russell called Cosmo, who is more photogenic than most human beings.

Mike Mills' second full-length film tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year-old engrossed in a "sadness" stemming from the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who, in his final years, outed himself and lived openly as a gay man. After Hal's demise, Oliver begins a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), in whose company he begins to understand how his parents have shaped him.

The trouble with grief is that it can produce drama that is either schematic or sentimental. Beginners not only avoids cheap emotion, but eschews any pretence of knowing all the answers; indeed, one of its strengths is that much of the psychological hinterland is only dimly perceived. We are aware, as viewers, that Anna is somehow the counterpart of the deceased Hal, and that it is Oliver's destiny to learn from them both. But it is not always clear how or why that should be. For all that, its portrayal of the grieving mind is an accurate one.

"What happens now?" Oliver asks Anna, at the end of the film. "I don't know," she replies. This is not merely a truthful response; it expresses the film's philosophical resistance to neat answers, as well as the knowledge that, for the important experiences in life - loss and love among them - there are no instruction manuals. It is our essential qualities that define us in those contexts, and we may be as surprised as anyone by what they reveal in us - as are the film's characters.

If Beginners is notable for anything, it should be for so persuasively describing that process of discovery, most obviously in Hal and Oliver - but also, to some extent, in Anna. It achieves that largely through the emotional intelligence of its actors. McGregor, Plummer and Laurent form a powerful team, and each has a mountain to climb during the film's course. If that makes it sound ponderous or worthy, nothing could be further from the truth; it is disarmingly light in tone. Which is where the pooch comes in.

After Hal's death, his Jack Russell is inherited by Oliver, to whom the dog manages to "speak", thanks to the technological magic of subtitles. What you make of that is going to determine whether you can bear this film. You may feel that talking terriers, especially ones that channel dead parents, are best told to shut up, or at least compelled to wear a muzzle. I suppose that's why the film-makers have used such a good-looking one - in the hope that he'll get away it. And Cosmo the Jack Russell does get away with it, just. But it's in spite of his looks, not because of them.

A more serious problem lies with the director's repeated attempts to universalise his story by using sequences referring to world history and the cosmos. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's latest film, does something similar but on a grandiose scale - a 20-minute-long CGI sequence depicting the evolution of the Universe, the world, fish, dinosaurs and so on. Mills is sensible enough not to harp on about the creation of the Universe at such length, but his attempt to locate what is basically a domestic drama within the larger context of 20th- and 21st-century world history is unnecessary. The story is resonant enough without it.

I suspect it's a form of insecurity that leads directors to insert mad references to the cosmos in a film, as if by so doing they're compensating for shortcomings in the subject matter. It's a weakness to surrender to it, because the disparity of scale can only draw attention to the very thing they're attempting to conceal. Far better to trust to the skill of one's actors.

All that said, I enjoyed Beginners - an honest attempt to discuss the influence of the dead in the midst of life. With the help of a talking dog.

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