Confronting emotional scars sets a son on the path to real love
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) shares his story with us. His father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out in his 70s, after 44 years of marriage, after the death of Oliver’s mother and soon discovers that he has terminal cancer, which also killed Oliver’s mother. There is a moment, early on, when Oliver remembers his father’s coming out. The declaration is straightforward and true, true enough, but Oliver stumbles over the detail of what Hal was wearing. Was it a colorful sweater or a plain robe? As he struggles to figure it out, we see both versions and, in a sudden rush, I was back in The Dark Knight, listening to Heath Ledger’s Joker recall how he got those lethal, smile-extending scars. Each time, he gave us a different take — radically different, in fact.
For the Joker, it was about the myth of his identity, creating a sense of confusion as the legend spread among survivors of his murderous rampages. Oliver though isn’t muddying the waters; he’s trying to gain a sense of clarity, but these two radically different characters are dealing with the same root. They are, like curious young children, picking at the scabs and ripping off scars. The raw physicality of the Joker fit the comic book action of Christopher Nolan’s adventure, and in Beginners, the itch of getting the details right in his father’s coming out, is just the corner of a huge emotional wound that Oliver probes.
On “Scar,” the title track from singer-songwriter Joe Henry’s 2001 album, Henry sings, “What does this look like to you / a mark so fine, you barely see / you have one, just like it too / a twisting vine, a mark so fine,” and again I have Oliver and the Joker, side-by-side. Fine marks or twisting vines, scars are the signs of life, lives lived hard and fast and open, fearlessly. And we recognize such fearlessness in others; there is an undeniable attraction to it.
Once Hal comes out, he discovers a new world and reimagines himself as a new man in that strange new land. He takes an ad out in the classifieds, takes on a younger lover (Goran Visnjic) and bravely stares down death for a few years before eventually succumbing to cancer. He wastes no time with regrets or misgivings.
Oliver takes note of the changes in his father. He sees the affection between Hal and his lover and recalls the lack of such intimacy between his parents. He learned, from his mother, to bury his frustrations and desires, allowing the emotional scar tissue to collect and calcify. After Hal’s death, Oliver seals himself away even further, with Hal’s dog as his only companion, until a chance meeting with a working actress (Melanie Laurent) beset by her own fine marks, convinces him that it might be time to just yank the band-aids and scabs clean off.
The story of Beginners borrows from Mills and his experiences with his own father who also came out late in life. I don’t know enough about their relationship to label this autobiography, but the film captures live moments and the reality of closing oneself off inside a grieving head and heart. As strong as each and every performer is here, Beginners is not about a singular individual, a face or a star announcing themselves. It is about growing up and becoming a fully formed person, no matter how long it takes or how much it pains us to do so.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi