Tag Archives: Beginners


Originally published at X-Media Online

My attendance of Campus Cinema began on Tuesday with Beginners, a film that begins with Ewan McGregor’s Oliver beginning to get over the death of his father. He really is still in the early stages of progressing through his grief though, as he spends much of the film in a melancholic mess. The hardships of ordinary bereavement are complicated by the fact that his beloved Dad finally came out of the closet in his final years, all guns blazing, following the death of Oliver’s mother from cancer. This is a story rich in uncertain identities and confusion, as well as poignant bonding and mutual understanding.

The most surprising thing about Beginners is how funny it is. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a shock, given that it’s essentially an unconventional rom com, but the laughs really do flow consistently at points. You’re never quite sure where the gags will jump out at you from. It could be McGregor’s dodgy impression of Sigmund Freud at a party; it could be particularly black humour in a deeply serious situation or simply the chemistry between accomplished actors delivering witty dialogue. The likes of Christopher Plummer, McGregor and Melanie Laurent from Inglorious Basterds make for a far from shabby cast.

There’s also some excellent visual humour that regularly appears in scenes out of the blue. Oliver’s father had a dog, Arthur, who is incredibly attached to members of the family, so that he wails and whines unbearably when parted from someone he trusts. Suitably cute and quirky subtitles to match his cuddly appearance flash up on screen occasionally to express his thoughts. There are also quite a few montages from Oliver’s childhood to set the scene and provide background information to characters and relationships.

I am not a fan of voiceover in film because it is usually executed woefully. However in Beginners McGregor’s reflective and self aware musings mostly come across as meaningful, adding depth to the story, especially when coupled with very distinctive still images. Oliver feels like the at once familiar and mysterious first person narrator to a novel we are watching, rather than the main character in a romantic film.

The downsides of this are that Beginners will be far too quirky for some to stomach. It wears its sentiments without shame, jumping willingly into boxes marked “indie” and “offbeat. It toys with ideas of minimalist storytelling, not just with slideshows of random pictures but with a wordless meeting between Oliver and his love interest. The recurring montage and voiceover sections give the time hopping narrative structure and symmetry but also a couple of false endings better than the one director Mark Mills eventually delivers.

Despite fizzling out somewhat Beginners features a touching, believable love story and avoids being overshadowed by the issue of an old man’s homosexuality at its heart. It asks smart questions in a unique and yes, quirky, way. Bravo Campus Cinema, even if the ads did promote Plymouth University!

My Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Page and Screen: The static and cinematic in Beginners

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.