Tom Cullen (left) and Chris New
At some point in almost every fine artist’s career, he or she will paint a bowl of fruit. Most of those paintings will be mediocre at best, but some will be extraordinary. Why? It all comes down to execution, of course.
A story where two strangers meet and develop a love affair over the course of a single weekend? This is the “bowl of fruit” of movie plots. It’s been done so many times that there’s nothing particularly novel or gimmicky about the story itself that will draw viewers to the movie: whether the film-going experience is satisfying will ultimately depend entirely on execution.
Fortunately, in the case of the new UK movie Weekend, having its debut this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the execution is terrific.
Shy, self-conscious Russell has a modest, unassuming life in Nottingham, England; his mostly straight friends don’t ask about his life as a gay man, and he doesn’t tell. One Friday night, after spending time with them, he visits a gay bar where he meets a brash, outspoken artist named Glen. What starts out as a drunken and drug-fueled one-night stand, soon becomes something more as they’re clearly drawn to each other over the course of that single weekend, even as they resent the assumptions that each makes about the other’s life choices.
Soon we learn something that makes both characters think they can’t possibly have much of a future together. “I don’t do boyfriends,” Glen says, and he later adds, “I don’t do goodbyes.”
But neither Russell nor Glen is exactly what he seemed at first glance — or maybe the presence of the other man has changed him: suddenly, Russell has much more confidence, while Glen doesn’t have all the answers. So how do you even say goodbye (or not) to someone who has helped you see the world, and yourself, in an entirely new light?
Despite the similarities, it’s not fair to call Weekend “Before Sunrise for gay men.” Still, like that other indie movie, this is a character-driven story that rises or falls entirely on the writing in a series of a revealing dialogues, and in the performances of the two leads, Tom Cullen (as Russell) and Chris New (as Glen).
I can’t help but compare it to another recent gay indie film, the U.S. film Role/Play, with a similar plot where two men meet and spend a weekend at a gay bed and breakfast. But whereas in that film, the characters serve as thinly-veiled mouthpieces for the obvious opinions of the writer-director, here the characters are almost breathtakingly real.
Indeed, this deceptively simple script is much more than just a series of interesting dialogues. There’s a perfectly constructed scene where the two take on the age-old gay argument about marriage, about whether two men getting married is either selling out to the heterosexual majority or completely subverting it.
But watch carefully: the argument starts out in general terms and abstract concepts, but by the end, it really couldn’t be more personal. It’s simply great dramatic writing.
And while the plot sometimes seems careless and meandering, I’d say it’s actually pretty disciplined. Note how, by the end of the weekend, Russell and Glen have completely changed roles: see how Russell now responds to homophobic thugs, and whether Glen now does both “boyfriends” and “goodbyes.” Russell and Glen are each exactly what the other needed, even if they didn’t know it.
Incidentally, while neither Cullen nor New is classically handsome, both are extraordinarily sexy — in part because writer-director Andrew Haigh has given them such great roles which they’ve portrayed with such intelligence and insight. In short, these are folks we recognize and definitely want to know more about. We fall in love too.
Speaking of Haigh, in interviews he’s said that part of the inspiration for this movie was that it sometimes seemed to him like the only aspects of the gay experience worth telling on film were coming out or repressed love. Instead, Weekend takes on a much more subtle, but also ultimately much more interesting (and, for most of us, much more relevant), topic: how do gay men in 2011, in an era of mostly-tolerance but also lingering anger and shame, make a relationship work?
Problems with the film? It starts too slow, and sometimes the pace is a little too lazy. Once we engage with these characters, it’s very easy to go along for the ride, but it takes a little long to get it in motion.
But this is a quibble. Weekend may not be a “masterpiece” exactly, but it’s one terrifically painted bowl of fruit.
The trailer for Weekend