Two impressive new films in two days at two Curzons, which I hope can be seen round your way. We took a punt on Beginners, despite a pretty dopey looking poster, on the strength of a beguiling clip on The Graham Norton Show, where star Ewan McGregor was a guest. Please do not be put off by the dopey looking poster, or indeed the capsule-review shorthand that it’s “about” a man whose Dad comes out at the age of 75. It isn’t “about” that.
It’s written and directed by Mike Mills (not that one), whose work I am unfamiliar with – see that’s the fun of reviewing films on a blog and not for a national publication, where such an admission would invite scorn and ridicule. He made a film called Thumbsucker, apparently, and before that loads of music videos, but none that stick in my mind. Well, he’s clearly a talent, as he wrote and directed Beginners, and it’s really rather beautiful. I’ve always found Ewan McGregor a likeable actor, but he’s not always well cast, and struggles with the American accent, but as the bereaved son in Beginners – and it starts with his gay dad Plummer’s death and flashes back, so it’s not a spoiler – he finds amazing depth. Grief clearly brings out the best in him as an actor. This is a small film, low of budget, bereft of special effects beyond some brilliantly swift stills to illustrate McGregor’s downbeat narration, and shot in that way where you can hear the traffic in the distance. It’s set in LA, and boasts that dusty light that’s so appealing and yet so melancholy if all is not well, and you get lots of still, warm nights. When one of the characters takes a detour to New York they may as well be visiting another planet.
Christopher Plummer has fun as the gay dad, and although we know he is doomed to die just a few years after coming out – because that’s how it starts, with McGregor fastidiously going through his stuff, pouring his surplus medication down the toilet, and taking on his dad’s almost-human Jack Russell, Arthur – there is a twinkle and a joy about him that cuts through any potentially mawkish tragedy. All of this makes it sounds like a comedy again, and it really isn’t. McGregor’s burgeoning, flailing, post-mortem relationship with Mélanie Laurent (best known for Inglourious Basterds) is suffused with melancholy and yearning, and has to be the sweetest I’ve seen since the flashback part of Blue Valentine. Although homosexuality was clearly an “issue” when Plummer was a younger man, it’s heartwarming to see him embrace it in later life, when – certainly in California – it is less of an “issue.”
Oh, and the dog speaks, but in subtitles. This flourish is handled so well, and so unexpectedly, you will buy it. The actor Cosmo is the star of the film. I’m not even a dog person, but I fell in love with him from the moment McGregor gives him a tour of his apartment.
Talking of being married, A Separation (or جدایی نادر از سیمین in Persian, and whose full title seems to be Nader and Simin, A Separation) is an Iranian domestic drama featuring scenes from a marriage that do not seek laughs. It’s a hard film to watch, but a hugely rewarding one, if you’re interested in other cultures. I understand it has been warmly received in Iran because it was made without government funding and is, thus, much more frank than a lot of Iranian cinema, which still operates under a certain amount of censorship, and if they don’t approve of your work, you may be banned, or exiled. Tough room.
Directed by Asghar Farhadi, and starring Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as the central married couple in Tehran, it presents an unsentimental and implicitly critical portrait of the way divorce is handled in Iran; it goes without saying that the system favours the husband, and yet, this is a middle-class, professional couple, living relatively comfortably, and as such, Simin comes across as empowered and independent, rather than – received wisdom alert! – oppressed and silenced. She seems to have dyed red hair, too.
The action begins, naturalistically, as if we are watching a documentary, before the judge at the “family court”, where domestic issues are presided over by a male elder. Because he deems Simin’s reasons for wanting a divorce unfounded (she has a visa and wishes to leave the country with their 11-year-old daughter and her husband, Nader, refuses to go with them, as his father has Alzheimer’s), she goes to live with her mother. Most of the drama takes place in their apartment, where Nader struggles to cope with his dad and his daughter, and an unpleasant chain of events is set in place. I felt we were led to blame Simin for these events, but it’s never as simple as that; Nader is no angel. It struck me as brave to show him not coping, privately, in a society where men are clearly supposed to be in charge.
My favourite performance came from Shahab Hosseini, who plays the hot-tempered, unemployed husband of the woman who secretly accepts payment to assist Nager when Simin leaves him. There’s a lot of stuff going on here about religion, obviously, but also a seemingly explicit caste system in Iranian, or Muslim, life, that was news to me, and a guiding thread about honour. It’s fascinating stuff. Put it this way, Hollywood isn’t going to remake it.
I’m still thinking about A Separation, days after having seen it, and sometimes I require that from a film. I appreciate that Iran has been a focus of interest over the last ten years as its cinema has reached a wider, international audience, and I’ve seen Blackboards and Kandahar (ironically, not set in Iran), but not enough, clearly. A Separation won the Golden Bear at Venice, the first Iranian film to do so. It’s not an easy watch, but I recommend it too. You live and learn.