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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Beginners

The idea that you can leave someone without going anywhere is intriguing, intelligent and powerfully realised by the consummate cast of this quirky film.
By Hilary Simmons
August 22, 2011
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By Hilary Simmons
August 22, 2011
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At first, Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical new indie flick, Beginners, seems like just another kooky romantic comedy featuring a lot of bad timing and translation gags. Think Amelie, except with Ewan McGregor in the main role and a gay subtext. But this time the comedy has a bittersweet edge; a recurrent note of sadness which reminds you that no one ever gets an unlimited amount of days, months or years in which to sort out the vagaries of their relationships. As a wise Jack Russell terrier, whose telepathic pronouncements punctuate the storyline, is at pains to point out to Oliver, the protagonist, it is never too late to find a sense of joie de vivre – and to doggedly hang onto it.

In 2003, when the film begins, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is sorting through the possessions of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who has just died of cancer. Oliver is a habitually dejected graphic designer with a talent for self-sabotage in relationships; he has a tendency to explain himself through self-consciously twee statements like, "My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this stupid t-shirt." In voiceover, Oliver reveals that after a forty-five year marriage his hitherto 'straight' father had come high-kicking out of the closet and enjoyed a lively liberated five years in the Southern Californian gay scene. Mills grafts a conventional love story onto Oliver's tricky journey of grief and self-realisation when he meets the lovely French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), at a costume party.

Oliver and Anna embark on a whimsical but wary relationship, complete with tears, laughter, sharp-worded recriminations – and random roller-skating through the rococo halls of a ritzy Los Angeles hotel. Oliver's memories of his father and the perfunctory kisses that peppered his parents passionless marriage, inform his hesitant approach to Anna; through flashbacks, writer-director Mills' explores the effect of the profound social changes of the past fifty years on people's sense of 'right' and 'wrong'.

Beginners is visually stunning and the storyline, while sentimental, is seldom sappy. Olivers' self-destructive nature inevitably leads him to spurn Anna when she gets too close, but the idea that you can leave someone without going anywhere is intriguing, intelligent and powerfully realised by the consummate cast.

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