Canada’s Christopher Plummer has had a dazzling 60-year acting career, much of it on stage. But rather than coasting into a benign dotage, he has tackled some challenging roles during the last decade — especially in the movies. He played an acerbic version of newsman Mike Wallace in The Insider, then earned an Oscar nomination as Leo Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station. He is in particularly provocative form in Beginners where he plays Hal, a 70-something widower who, very late in life, not only sashays out of the closet but also takes a much younger man to be his lover. This comes as no little surprise to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who then gets a double whammy when his dad tells him that he is also terminally ill with cancer.
Upping the angst factor even farther, Oliver turns out to be a serial relationship-wrecker who seems destined to trash his current love affair with a sexy and soulful French actress (Melanie Laurent). These events unfold in elliptical fashion, with a narrative filled with flashbacks chronicling not only the last months of Hal’s life but also key scenes from Oliver’s childhood. Eventually we see the impact on Oliver of growing up in a family where the father is secretly gay and the mother suffers in confused semi-silence.
If this premise seems weepily fraught, fear not — Beginners is easily one of the best films of the year. Funny, sad, thoughtful and suffused with humanity, this well-acted drama likely has a couple of Oscar nominations in its future. The non-linear storytelling, filled with dreamy recollections and memories, has a nice flow to it. And the excellent, emotionally coherent performances will keep viewers pulled into the film, even if the meaning of certain scenes isn’t immediately clear. That director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) seems so surefooted amidst all these ambiguities can possibly be credited to the fact that Beginners is largely autobiographical. M
Directed by Mike Mills
Starring Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor
R – 104 minutes
Playing at UVic’s Cinecenta Friday and Saturday