Faith and Film: Beginners

“Beginners” is an entertaining look at the complexity of relationships. As difficult as they are, we can’t live without them, and keep seeking them out.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old man whose father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has just died of cancer. Georgia, Hal’s wife of 44 years had died five years earlier. After Georgia’s death, Hal comes out as a gay man in his 70s. Oliver accepts his father’s orientation, although he is understandably puzzled by this revelation in the light of his parents’ long marriage. Hal tells Oliver that Georgia knew of his orientation, but when they married in 1955, there was no option for Hal. His parents were successful in their careers, and made the marriage work as well as they could. In many flashbacks, Georgia seemed caring but distant with Oliver, whereas Hal was usually absent, working as a museum director. In his last years, Hal has a relationship with a much younger man, and seems very happy, even as death approaches.

Soon after Hal’s death, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), a lovely French actress, at a party. They begin to see each other, although both are relationship-shy. Oliver, a cartoonist, has had little luck with relationships, and seemed jealous and confused by his father’s last years as a happy gay man, with a boyfriend, and may other friends. As an actress, Anna travels a lot and is not anxious to find herself in another relationship. She also has a strained, although never fully explained, relationship with her father. Oliver and Anna reminded me of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johnansson in “Lost in Translation”—drawn to each other, and not quite sure what they want in a relationship. In addition, they both carry lots of baggage with them.

“Beginners” is a thoughtful, funny and touching movie about the complexities of relationships. It suggests that, with so many choices today, we are all beginners when it comes to relationship. The movie implies that 50 years ago, when Hal and Georgia were married, people were busier, and they didn’t have as many options. So, for better or worse, they made do with what they had.

The movie also examines the state of happiness. In his final years, Hal sheds his inhibitions and seems much happier than ever. At the same time, he is not bitter about his life with Georgia and Oliver, and is proud that he remained faithful.

Oliver is reluctant to fully commit to his relationship with Anna. Something keeps holding him back. Is it the distance he felt from his parents in their unusual marriage? Is he still depressed over his father’s death? We’re never quite sure. Yet the main characters are all likeable, and I wanted Oliver and Anna to succeed as a couple.

I don’t know that the movie sheds any new light on the human condition. The fact that relationships are difficult is certainly not original. Nevertheless I enjoyed “Beginners.” It is well written and directed by Mike Mills. The story is engrossing, and the performances are all very good. If you’re looking for a good pastime on a hot summer day, you could do a lot worse than this film.

Tom Condon, OP