In previous Page and Screens I’ve referred to the book How Fiction Works by James Wood. Last night, after returning home from seeing Beginners, I immediately plucked it off the shelf. Despite all the quirkiness of Mike Mills’s indie rom com, trying so hard to make it stand apart as a unique creation, it was a rather familiar filmmaking convention of montage and voiceover that lodged itself firmly in my mind, because it reminded me of a passage in Wood’s bible for book lovers.
The story, though distinctive, was overshadowed in my mind’s eye by thoughts of the way this film was structured, the way it unravelled. It frequently featured rapid slideshows of sometimes random, sometimes nostalgic images, accompanied by Ewan McGregor’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes profound voiceover. These sections usually provide background information on characters which could be expositional but rarely feels as though it is. They also weave a symmetry and structure through a narrative that jumps around in time.
Beginners begins with McGregor’s character Oliver clearing out his father’s things. We then follow Oliver as he reflects on the last years of his father’s life, his childhood and other regrets. After his mother died of cancer his father, played with relish by Christopher Plummer, reveals that he is and always has been, gay. For the first time in his life he can finally freely embrace his true identity in retirement. Oliver watches on with a mixture of confusion and happiness, feeling his own sense of self compromised by years of deceit and his own deeply rooted trust issues.
Then of course a woman arrives on the scene. They tend to be pretty and this one, a French actress, is no exception. Just as his father had to wait for his moment to truly begin living, Oliver now let’s himself feel that he might not be alone, that someone is there who just gets him. The pair meet at a party, Oliver dressed as Freud jokily analysing people to cover his sadness and she totally mute due to laryngitis. She sees right through his act and a believable, amusing relationship organically forms before our eyes.
So this is a film with colourful characters and plenty of quirky humour that might be too much for some. But what makes these characters come to life? This movie could easily become overshadowed by the issue of repressed homosexuality and older people in love but it does not. Instead all its characters are intriguing, with Oliver himself a particularly strong window onto events.
We come back to James Wood and his chapter on character. He says that there is “nothing harder than the creation of fictional character”, citing the telltale sign of debut novelists describing photographs of the protagonist’s family members; “the unpractised novelist cleaves to the static”. Good and great novelists know how to “get a character in”, to get them moving in a story, keeping obvious and ugly information dumps to a minimum.
In Beginners however montages of still images successfully get characters “in”. This got me thinking about the use of the static by filmmakers. In the cinema we are used to immediately seeing characters on the move but that does not necessarily establish them. In books we often see them just thinking and not moving. Perhaps by going against expectations in either medium we gain a refreshing perspective on character?
Certainly Beginners takes a minimalist approach, stripping away much of what we’re used to from a film at times. Much is made of Oliver’s relationship with his father’s dog, which is given some hilarious subtitles. Oliver’s meeting with his French actress is mostly gutted of dialogue. He also never truly reacts passionately to his father’s homosexuality, never choosing to fully support or fully disagree with it at any point, never really showing outrage or annoyance. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian hits the nail on the head when he singles out Oliver’s passivity as a factor holding the film back, not allowing audiences to truly love the film.
However Bradshaw also points out Beginners’ most interesting element, describing it as “literary” and likening Oliver to a “novelistic narrator”. This film really does blur the boundaries between the page and the screen. It might be a sign of unimaginative weakness to rely on weighty sketches of the static on the page but in the cinematic universe Beginners proves that still pictures really can speak a thousand words. Coupled with well written voiceover (hard enough in itself) and placed at the right points, a series of pictures can flick the narrative pace up a notch or scale it down for a profound pause.