Beginners: Waiting for the Lion

This is what love feels like.

 

The buzz surrounding this film on its premiere related to Christopher Plummer’s performance as an elderly man coming out to his son. That is undeniably an inspiring part of the film, but it’s not what touched me the most. A lot of people who’ve seen this film likely relate to it in different ways. The scene that truly made me realize how similar I am to Ewan McGregor’s character is when Plummer tells him the story of the lion and the giraffe.

As Oliver Fields (McGregor) is cleaning out the house of his father Hal (Plummer) who died recently, he remembers how the old man shortly after his wife’s death declared to his son that he was gay. At that time, Hal was 75 years old and intent on “doing something about” his sexuality. That he did, striking up a relationship with the much younger Andy (Goran Visnjic) and getting one-hundred per cent involved with the gay community of his city and its activities. It didn’t take long though for doctors to discover that Hal had grown a tumor that would likely kill him. Andy remained by his side, even though he was seeing others as well, and Oliver took care of his dad even as the old man refused to acknowledge the fact that he was going to die. Some time after Hal’s death, Oliver meets a French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), at a party and she immediately recognizes grief in his eyes…

Profound level of understanding
Mike Mills’s second dramatic feature (after Thumbsucker (2005)) is largely structured as a series of flashbacks punctuating the romance between Oliver and Anna. This is not an easy thing to do; lesser talents would have created a narrative that confused or distanced audiences. Mills makes it work, in spite of its complex aspects, which entail the romantic relationship, the portrayal of Hal and his short-lived but happy journey after coming out, as well as addressing gay civil rights history and underlining the difference between living as a homosexual in the 1950s and our time. At times, the film is intensely romantic as Oliver and Anna explore each other emotionally (the scene at the party where they first meet is almost like a dream), and deeply touching as the relationship between Oliver and Hal remains firm even as the latter is slipping away. There is a profound level of understanding between these people that renders words largely pointless. Oliver and Anna share a loneliness that both are willing, but not always able, to crush. As for the story about the lion and the giraffe, it may sound silly on paper but Hal is pointing out to his son the difference between how they view life; Oliver keeps waiting to get the lion he dreams of while Hal is willing to settle for the giraffe because, hey, life’s too short. McGregor and Laurent are both excellent, but Plummer is a particular delight to watch as the father. A heartthrob in his day, and not always respected as a fine actor, he brings vitality and dignity to a role that is essentially the screen version of the director’s father, as he based the story on personal experiences. As the boytoy, Visnjic teeters dangerously on the edge of silliness (especially with that hair), but his goofy character does care about the father figure he’s embracing.

Depressing at times, but the film is incisive in its analysis of what it is that keeps Oliver lonely and why that is not a simple thing to change, especially at the age of 38. Believe me. It is one thing to know in your mind that settling for fun is the wise thing to do, quite another to know in your heart that reaching for what’s harder to get is what you really want.

Beginners 2011-U.S. 105 min. Color. Produced by Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Leslie Urdang, Jay Van Hoy, Dean Vanech. Written and directed by Mike Mills. Cast: Ewan McGregor (Oliver Fields), Christopher Plummer (Hal Fields), Mélanie Laurent (Anna), Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller.

Trivia: Max von Sydow was allegedly considered for the role of Hal.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Plummer). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Plummer). Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Plummer).

Last word: “My dad was very poised and polite. He was born in 1924, kind of shy and very aesthetic. He wore a suit and was very proper. In creating the Andy (Goran Visnjic) character, I had seen my real dad gravitate towards all these guys – not just romantically, but his gay friends – who were way wilder, way more messy, way less aesthetic, way juicier, more emotional, less ‘boundaried’ and kind of messy. It was really beautiful and heartbreaking to realize, ‘Wow, that’s what he wants. He wants to be more like that. Consciously and unconsciously, he’s attracted to these guys.’ I knew that, but I knew it better after writing about it.” (Mills, Collider)

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