Voice-over is an extremely controversial tool that a lot of filmmakers consider a clutch to lean on when films can’t tell enough of the story visually. In a lot of instances, it’s hard to disagree. It’s a great tool for introducing expository information and getting into characters’ minds, but it’s usually more powerful when we can figure these things out through dialogue or visual cues. But when it’s used in an effective manner, voice-over can really help add definition and style to a piece of work – as in “Dexter,” “Adaptation,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
“Beginners” is the story of Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), a depressed and confused cartoonist/illustrator, and it centers on the two most important periods of his young adult life. One story focuses on his attempt at a relationship with an outgoing actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) and the other on his eighty-year-old father who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Hal (Christopher Plummer). He meets Anna after his father has died, but the film does a great job of jumping back and forth between the two time periods, exploring the emotional impacts of each very effectively.
Oliver and Anna are a fun match to watch because they’re both unique and artistic personalities that have trouble with commitment and struggle to find a steady happiness. On its own, the story would be interesting, but lacking substantial emotional presence. That’s where the story of Oliver’s father takes the film to another level. The role of Oliver’s father Hal is played by sure-fire Academy Award Nominee Christopher Plummer, who gives the character a touchingly optimistic spark. Hal has been secretly homosexual throughout Oliver’s life, and now in his 70s, he finally comes out of the closet and develops a relationship with the young child-like Andy (Goran Visnjic) and is also diagnosed with terminal cancer. Despite learning of his fatal disease, Hal continues to remain optimistic about life’s offerings, enjoying every last minute of his life by throwing parties with his new gay friends and codling every ounce of cuteness from his Jack Terrier, Arthur. His cheery mind state greatly contradicts that of his son, who is constantly in a phase of questioning and loss, but as we watch the two stories unfold, we hope that maybe Hal’s optimism will rub off on Oliver and help him and Anna stay together.
While the storylines are intriguing to watch unfold, it’s the manner in which the film flows that make the film stand apart from most other films of the quirky, counter-mainstream comedy/drama mold. Multiple segments of the film are composed of images from the past: people smiling in the 60s, stills of the sun and stars when Oliver’s parents were born, and pictures of Oliver growing up. As we flip through these images, the beautiful piano score gives us an eerie, nostalgic feel and Oliver’s voice-over talks about how times used to be different. In a way, these segments are the closest we get to Oliver’s interior; he mostly remains bottled up and quiet throughout the film, but when he somberly narrates us through images from the past, we can feel his sadness routed in some sort of longing for the past; a confusion in how his parents were able to function through his father’s lies and his mother’s blatant depression, and how it all lead up to his modern day sadness. These segments also work particularly well alongside the projects that Oliver is working on in his studio. His drawings are minimalistic portraits with short, direct captions such as a picture of a couple he labels “The Happys: The first couple to never experience sadness.” Most of his drawings are part of a series he’s working on called the history of sadness, which begins with a picture of the sun being formed, captioned “Before sadness was invented.” They are very creative pieces of work that – like the personality of Oliver – are both darkly comical and pessimistic. Despite these clouds of depression that surround Oliver, we hope that Anna and Hal will lead him out of his sad ways, and guide this heartwarming film towards a happy ending.
Overall – 8.5/10