Beginners: even men with steel hearts love to see a dog in a flick

Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (not the one out of REM), is a charming and low-key drama starring Ewan McGregor as Oliver, a sensitive and introspective commercial artist, and Christopher Plummer as his increasingly eccentric and flamboyant father who comes out as gay at the age of 75 after Oliver’s mother dies. Plummer’s character himself dies four years later and the movie flips back and forth between scenes showing Oliver coping with his father’s fairly radical change of lifestyle and scenes from the period when he’s having to deal with his second bereavement, clear his father’s house and try to re-establish his emotional connection with the world, mainly through a new relationship he strikes up with an actress he meets while attending a party dressed as Sigmund Freud. The film’s regularly punctuated by McGregor’s voiceovers and some idiosyncratic montages of old photographs and illustrations, but for the main part it’s played out in a loose and understated manner and manages to avoid being either irritatingly quirky or depressingly maudlin.

McGregor is onscreen for pretty much the whole of the running time and is surprisingly convincing as the sad and lonely Oliver, given his over-familiarity from a string of considerably more bombastic movies, and Mélanie Laurent does as well as she can with her somewhat clichéd role as the kooky but troubled love interest, but it’s the veteran Christopher Plummer who really impresses here, playfully mincing his way through Gay Pride events and private parties without once coming across as a lazy stereotype. It’s nice that Oliver is fully accepting and supportive of his father’s embracing of his true sexuality, and much of the energy of the film comes from the contrast between the father’s new lust for life and Oliver’s subsequent aimlessness and expectations of disappointment. The true star of the film however is Arthur, the Jack Russell that Oliver inherits after his father’s death – normally, using a dog in a film as shorthand for the need for companionship comes over as obvious and hackneyed, but here the animal steals every scene with its cuteness, and the director even gets away with using subtitles to convey Oliver’s impressions of what its inner thoughts might be, which really really shouldn’t work. This is a lovely film. Genuinely touching.

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