Graphic artist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is in his late 30s when his life is turned upside down. His 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) shocks him by coming out of the closet after the death of his mother, and also discloses he has terminal cancer. And then Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), an irreverent and unpredictable French actress, and he tries to apply the life lessons he has learnt from his father.
Review by Louise Keller:
The elusive search for happiness is the premise of this unusual relationship film in which our journey is equally elusive. In a way it's a story about the meaning of life, exploring what's real, what's important and most importantly what can be sustained. Director Mike Mills has based his screenplay on real events in his life: namely his father's declaration of his homosexuality after his mother's death, his subsequent illness, death and the consequences. Hence it is not really surprising to find that Ewan McGregor's protagonist Oliver is struggling to put all the pieces of his life together, when his perceptions from childhood are exposed to be false.
There are many wonderfully insightful moments in this rather odd little film that plays with time, convention, commitment and expression, yet the totality of our journey is fragmented, somewhat diminishing its impact. The three central performances are the film's strongest element and each inhabits their role magnificently. Illness, death and deception swirl around almost claustrophobically as in flashback, we meet Oliver's ailing father Hal (Christopher Plummer), embracing his new life as a homosexual with a young lover and a gay pride of new people in his life. Aptly, when Oliver and Mélanie Laurent's Anna meet at a fancy dress party several months after Hal's death, they have assumed other people's personas. The meeting of the real Oliver and Anna is delayed even further with Anna's laryngitis acting as a barrier to their communication. There's a plaintive quality about their budding relationship and McGregor and Laurent are great together.
Although there are many instances that are comical, including an adorable Jack Russell terrier whose conversation is shown in subtitles, the mood of the film overall is one of sadness. The glimpses in flashback of Oliver's dysfunctional family when he is a young boy accentuate the ingrained sadness that has shadowed him throughout his life. Even at work, he is contemplating The History of Sadness in his role as graphic artist and crude sketches are used as part of the narrative.
In many ways, the film plays better in hindsight, when we are removed from its dramatic arc. That's when we are able to savour the elements and are not distracted by our disappointment at the subtlety of the journey.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Melanie Laurent's glowing screen presence shines across this otherwise somewhat melancholy film infused with grief - but also with joy. It is acutely autobiographical and we can sense that, even if we weren't told by the director in his statement. Mike Mills wants his own experience to be an example of a universal truth about all the things he went through when, like Hal (Christopher Plummer), his father, came out of the closet as gay, after a 45 year marriage and on the eve of terminal cancer.
But the melancholy of this subject gives way to how Hal and his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) interact during these tumultuous times. Hal is encouraging Oliver - still single at 38 and fearful he can never make a relationship work - towards love. And Oliver learns something from his father as a gay man with a loving partner.
Mills (a photographer and graphic artist) illustrates the story with flashes of graphic art as well as a loveable Jack Russell (Hal's dog inherited by Oliver) who can occasionally communicate via subtitles. This sounds a bit pretentious but Mills' wit overcomes the problem. The story unravels in a series of flashbacks intercut with Oliver's progress in a relationship with Anna (Laurent). This doesn't have the seamless joy and pedestrian obstacles of a Hollywood romance; it is complicated by the demons both carry with them and by geography. She is an actress on the move.
In the flashbacks, we see Hal less than we see Oliver's mother, who is portrayed as a rather strange mum and distant. Their marriage was a construct; young Oliver was affected by his father's absences at work and his mother's unwillingness or inability to communicate. His father, now older and wiser, is keen to make up for his own as well as her failings.
The film has a distinct tone which Mills nurtures in many ways, including first person narration, images to illustrate periods in time and society - and music in a rich soundscape. It's a film for discerning audiences looking for depth and truth about the human condition.
Oliver's stumbling progress towards some sort of understanding with Anna is his big adventure in life and we are left with the hope that after the end credits, they will accommodate and support each other for a long time.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
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CAST: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Lou Taylor Pucci, Mary Page Keller, Jodi Long
PRODUCER: Miranda de Pencier, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech
DIRECTOR: Mike Mills
SCRIPT: Mike Mills
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Kasper Tuxen
EDITOR: Olivier Bugge Coutte
MUSIC: Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, Brian Reitzell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Shane Valentino
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 25, 2011