Ewan McGregor plays things so gentle, that it is nearly impossible not to empathize with his characters. In Beginners, he plays a protagonist who confronts quite a lot at once, and relatively later in life: death, true love, profound sadness, existential anxiety, the fear of dying alone, the fear of staying with someone he doesn’t love as much as he think she should- all of these concerns are woven together in a delightfully damp, gray, atmospheric montage about -in essence- autodidacticism. Oliver Fields learns how not to be sad by living through sad things.
One of the best developed characters in the film is Christopher Plummer’s Hal Fields, Oliver’s father. There are three periods of Oliver’s life that affect the plot: his childhood (which is presented in a series of flashbacks to moments he shared with his mother), the period when his father is living with terminal cancer, and a mixed period of grief over his father’s death and new love, shared with a girl named Anna, who is sad like him. Hal does not exist as a lead figure in his son’s childhood, but the two are clearly bonded, even more so in the years after Hal comes out of the closet as a gay man. Oliver is completely supportive of his father’s lifestyle, and demonstrates his understanding by giving mini lessons (shown as cuts to graphics, clips from old news reels, and pictures with his voice-over) on the context of social justice. The relationship is healthy and open, an a-typical kind of father-son relationship, indeed. There is nothing violent about this film, which is refreshing.
Hal is present by absence in two of the three life periods, but just as effective in each one. When he is not present in childhood, it is to show the sadness of his otherwise strong, free-spirited mother, which affected him deeply into adulthood, as he begins by using his parent’s relationship as a love-barometer for his own romantic attachments, and is disillusioned. During the scenes where Hal and Oliver are sharing the family home, Hal is appreciated as his new, happy self, but is also picked apart, albeit delicately, by way of Oliver’s uncomfortable questions about the past. Once Hal is dead, Anna becomes the receiver of affection, in a purely romantic way, and Hal serves as much an obstacle as he does a guide to love and acceptance. His character is in the stars, but very present.
When Oliver meets Anna, she confronts his sadness. “Why are you at a party if you’re sad?” she silently (due to a bout of laryngitis) asks Oliver, in mock analysis tone. They become attached and know that they are a uniquely suited match, but are both unsure about whether they can handle a relationship. The don’t fear pain as much as they want to avoid failure. In perspective, Beginners contains a great deal of commentary on “failed” relationships versus “happy” ones. Hal and his lover, Andy, clearly adore one another. Anna and Oliver harbor the fears and failures of their fathers: the living and the dead, and must remove themselves from the deathly qualities of lives lived half-way or with many lies. They comfort each other, but their comfort represents an unknown level of intimacy- something they don’t trust right away, even though they immediately become attached on a rare level.
In the end and throughout, love conquers fear, and fear fades away as a lesson on living to live, even if one loses a lot along the way to death.