Beginners is Mike Mills' second feature, coming six years after his debut Thumbsucker, and while it displays the same quirky sensibility, there's an emotionally resonant undertone to this film that feels deeply personal. It opens in 2003, with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) – a graphic designer, like Mills – clearing out the apartment of his recently deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer). He leaves with Hal's pet dog and a head full of memories. The most startling of memories was his father's revelation that he was gay, an announcement he made after his wife had passed away and when he was 75 years old. He spent the remaining years of his life enjoying his newfound freedom to explore his sexuality, delighting in the fresh circle of friends it introduced him to and drawing as much fun as possible from the time he had left. His joie de vivre is shown in marked contrast to Oliver's morose demeanour, as he hesitates over committing to a relationship with the equally troubled Anna (Mélanie Laurent).
Mills tells two parallel stories, cutting back and forth in time with ease and confidence, linking his different time periods through snapshots of the eras – "This is the sun, and the stars. This is what the president looked like. This is what love looked like." Mills' direction is full of these repeating motifs, some of which incorporate his own graphic design, with Oliver's attempts to sell a series of drawings entitled The History of Sadness to a band for their album cover. His idiosyncratic approach even extends to giving dialogue to Arthur, the Jack Russell who comes into Oliver's possession, with subtitles giving voice to his innermost thoughts: "While I understand up to 150 words, I don't talk," he states in response to Oliver's attempts to start a conversation.
Depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing, Beginners might sound charming or insufferable. Red lights started flashing for me during Oliver's first encounter with Anna, which takes place at a fancy dress party, with him wearing a Freud costume and her suffering from laryngitis, which means she has to write all of her speech down on notes. It immediately comes off too cute and affected by half, and much of the relationship between Oliver and Anna is characterised by such silliness. Anna is flighty and neurotic and liable to be running joyously through the streets one minute before breaking down in tears the next. Laurent doesn't seem to have a firm grip on her character (although, to be fair, her character is disappointingly underdeveloped) and the vacillating of Oliver and Anna as their relationship develops grows very tiresome indeed.
It's a shame that this romance takes up the bulk of Beginners' running time, because everything else in the film is often wonderful. The scenes with Plummer, enjoying a new lease of life, are a joy and a great platform for a wonderful actor. Graceful and dignified as ever, Plummer makes us feel the burden that has been lifted from Hal's shoulders as he puts behind him the lie he has been forced to live for over four decades, and there's a lovely playfulness about his demeanour. Hal is a man infused with a new lease of life, a new love (with Goran Visnjic, giving a fine, empathetic performance) and a fresh perspective on the world, and even as cancer begins to take its toll, his refusal to wilt is very moving.
I can see that Mills is looking to draw comparison between the two strands of his film, and to see how the experiences of Oliver's parents' (Mary Page Keller is dynamite in a small role as his mother) has impacted upon his life, but I feel he hasn't quite got the balance right. Interest in the relationship between Oliver and Anna quickly wanes; they're just another good-looking but emotionally stunted pair taking an inordinate amount of time to see that they're right for each other. Given the awkward silences and tentative behaviour that make up much of their story, is it any wonder that we'd rather spend time with Plummer, whose scenes encapsulate the spirit of seizing life's chances and finding happiness wherever it exists? In fact, the most affecting moments in the main narrative are often provided by a dog, with Arthur (trained by Mathilde De Cagny, who also worked with Frasier's Eddie) giving an uncanny performance. He has a couple of lovely moments (watch as he hesitantly stands on a park bench, wondering whether to join the other dogs, or as he races up to an old man he thinks is Hal) and the lines Mills gives him often cut right to the heart of the matter – "Are we married yet?" Arthur quietly asks as the Oliver/Anna relationship continues to falter. Poor Ewan McGregor; here he is giving one of his best performances, and he's upstaged by a canine co-star.