“He didn’t give in.” So whispers Anna (Mélanie Laurent) to the still-grieving Oliver (Ewan McGregor), as she finishes reading the disarmingly open dating ad of Oliver’s late father, Hal. It’s Beginners’ exquisite and cumulative moment of catharsis. And it’s the subtle epiphany to the film’s gentle meanderings through a landscape of seemingly irrevocable loneliness and sadness. This poignant climax would, quite simply, not have been earned had the man playing Hal – Christopher Plummer – not been able to imbue the part with the necessary pathos and vulnerability. That Plummer picked up pretty much every Best Supporting Actor award going for the performance is proof enough that he more than lived up to the task.
Previous to Beginners, Plummer had been spending much of his professional dotage as Hollywood’s go-to man for a dash of patriarchal gravitas. Well-versed in reprising parts with a strutting air of authority – sometimes verging on the reptilian – Plummer crafted memorable support performances in important American films of the early noughties such as Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005) and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). It’s one of the reasons why Beginners writer-director Mike Mills’ casting of Plummer was so inspired. It viewed Plummer’s patrician lineage as something that could be interestingly morphed through his specific character’s unusual dialectic as a 75-year-old man who has had a late-life blossoming after his wife has died (including “coming out”).
The first time we see Plummer emblematises the beautiful way that Mills envisions his character. Hal’s seminal coming-out to an unseen Oliver is replayed in different outfits and poses. It is technically a skit, though its purpose isn’t to satirise but almost to challenge the audience (and, by logical extension, Oliver) to find the lesson in dignity amid its collage of confessional interpretations. In fact, what’s lovely about Beginners is the organic way that its confection of postmodern quirks and conceits lead to the soul of the story, rather than being gurning inanities that keep the audience at arm’s length.
Although Hal is dead in the now of the story-world, he appears regularly in flashback as the narrative trundles round its present-day focus on Oliver’s crisis of conscience. “Flashback” almost seems an inappropriate term to use as Hal’s late-life vignettes seem to symbolise an ever-present and enduring lesson that Oliver can only fully perceive in the film’s climax.
Perhaps Beginners’ most lovely scene, and one that zones in on this idea of Hal as the film’s spiritual informant, is when his nightlife sojourns in LA’s gay scene are played out. If the film is all about the bittersweet pang of loneliness – and LA being an appropriate canvas for that alienation – there is something so deeply moving about the forlorn way Hal attempts to embrace the liberation of his newly embraced sexuality by going clubbing. Again, what would initially seem a humorous conceit (a 75-year-old man hanging out in a techno nightclub) morphs into something deceptively emotional.
This moment is crystallised when Hal is stood at the bar, sipping on a cocktail alone, acknowledging the overwhelming evidence of his incompatibility to the youthful environment around him, but accepting it all with a pleasure and gratitude that at least he gave it a go. Only an actor of Plummer’s class could have carried that sentiment off, and he puts the seal on it all as Hal’s life is depicted fading out in a beautiful montage accompanied by Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. It’s a fitting tribute, not only to the character’s contribution to the moral of the story, but to Plummer’s tour de force of a performance as well.