On the surface, Beginners would seem to be the story of Oliver Fields’ father Hal, played by Christopher Plummer. As it turns out, Hal has been gay his whole life, despite the fact that he was married to Oliver’s mother for 44 years and raised a son. After Oliver’s mother died, Hal finally decided to come out of the closet and reinvent himself.
I’ve heard writer/director Mike Mills talk about his father on public radio, and this film is a fairly accurate depiction of Mills’ real-life father and their relationship. Mills has said that it was fascinating and invigorating to watch his father reveal his true nature in the twilight of his life, to finally allow himself to be who he was, and to acquire a new-found zest for life. As a result, father and son grew closer than ever before. This relationship is certainly at the heart of Beginners, but it ends up not being the film’s central narrative focus.
More time is spent in the present, after the death of Hal Fields, examining Oliver’s sad life and his latest relationship with French actress Anna, played by Melanie Laurent. The film is sweet and charming, but also depressing, and Oliver’s sadness permeates the tone of the film as well as the character’s life. Flashbacks with Oliver’s mother, played by an excellent Mary Page Keller, depict a marriage devoid of passion in which Oliver’s father was largely absent. Even though Georgia knew that Hal was gay, as was often the case at the time, she thought that if she loved him enough she could “fix” him. And while it’s obvious that Hal and Georgia did deeply love each other, it wasn’t a romantic love, at least on Hal’s part. So Georgia led a lonely, depressed life, and that became the prevalent mood in the Fields’ house, try as she might to lighten the mood and keep Oliver from withdrawing inward. Children have a way of sensing the truth, and while he never knew his father was gay, the lack of passion in the marriage and the resultant melancholy colored everything. And it informed Oliver’s emotional development and his own state of being.
So it is that Oliver has grown into someone lonely and forever longing for love, affection, and human connection, but inherently distrustful of love and romance. Arthur dreads a life of detachment and lovelessness, and walks away from or sabotages every relationship he’s ever had. It’s easier and more empowering to expect and guarantee rejection rather than risk opening one’s heart. Anna has similar emotional hesitations, and the two of them try their best to resist their natural inclinations to distrust or cut and run.
It’s perhaps the last four year’s of Hal’s life, the four years he lived as an openly gay man, that ultimately serve to give Oliver some hope and a chance at happiness. For all of his fears about living in a loveless relationship, the real problem is that his childhood was spent in a detached relationship with his mother where there wasn’t a lot of honest communication or expression. At one point Georgia tells her son that if he needs to express his pain, he should go into his room, shut the door, and scream for two minutes. What Oliver doesn’t seem to realize is that his adult life has been a continuation of that detached childhood. But it’s his adult relationship with his father that becomes his key to changing the way he thinks, feels, and lives. For the first time, he’s able to have an honest and expressive relationship with one of his parents. And though it takes time for him to change, we can see the seeds planted in those four years with his father as they begin to sprout and bear fruit in the present, in the way he begins to come out of his shell and risk opening himself up to Anna and not running away from the thing he most desires.
Ewan McGregor as Oliver and Christopher Plummer as Hal both have such a wonderful, natural ease to their work that it makes the film. Goran Visnjic’s as Hal’s younger, almost child-like lover Andy is also excellent. He seems to embody the injured and emotionally fragile inner child that Hal is trying to reconnect with and Oliver is struggling to allow. Beginners is a modest film with modest aims, but it’s incredibly personal both in the reflection of Mike Mills’ actual life and in the intimate emotional truths of the performances. It’s sweet and it’s sad, but it’s also incredibly honest, life-affirming, and heart-warming.