Saturday 17 March 2012

On DVD: "Weekend"

Early on in the clued-up, affecting romance Weekend, one of its two skylarking lovers, an openly gay artist, wonders aloud whether the only punters likely to show up for his latest show, an installation inspired by his sex life, would themselves be gay men, and then only because there might be a cock or two on display; straights wouldn't bother, he reasons, because they'd surely reckon this art had nothing at all to do with their world. It's hard, upon hearing this monologue, not to assume it's writer-director Andrew Haigh's way of expressing his own fears about his work being confined to a gay ghetto, kept separate from all those heteronormative Gerard Butler-Jennifer Aniston romcoms doing the rounds in the modern multiplex.

It would be a shame if Weekend encountered such a form of cinematic homophobia: in its own small, defiantly low-key way, it feels like a breakthrough of sorts for everybody from its lead character outwards. This is Russell (Tom Cullen), a quiet, rather shy young man, not entirely at home in the straight world he finds himself inhabiting; a lifeguard at a Notts swimming baths by day, his natural inclination is to play everything safe, which means no diving, not much bombing, and (above all else) no heavy petting. One Saturday morning, however, he wakes up next to Glen (Chris New), the aforementioned artist: one of life's provocateurs, seemingly at ease with the world and his own place within it, he lounges around Russell's flat naked, where his host clings somewhat primly to his T-shirt and pants.

Glen pushes Russell, putting his tongue in his lover's derriere and his tape recorder in his face to ask him what he's feeling the morning after; they part, after breakfast, on a slightly sour note, but upon reflection Russell finds he likes being pushed, and gets Glen to bring him an energy drink - that modern elixir of love, for it gives you wings - once he finishes work that afternoon, whereupon the pair remain more or less inseparable for the next 24 hours. The time begins ebbing, flowing, ticking away: returned to Russell's flat, we see the pair waiting for the kettle to boil, later riding the tram to and from town, then later still engaged in those long, early-hours conversations in which, after stretches of aimless, intoxicated jawing, one party or the other suddenly brushes up against a nerve - and the camera, in fostering this unusual intimacy with these characters, is right there to capture the fallout.

These fleeting seconds, minutes, hours matter, we learn, because Glen has a train to catch on the Sunday, one which will carry him away to the U.S. for the next two years on an art scholarship, and the quandary these boys face proves to be a universal one, expressed with greater sensitivity than one generally finds in today's romantic cinema: how do you turn something ephemeral - that first spark of attraction - into something that might last? The film knows the obstacles well, yet Haigh deploys them disarmingly: he sets up what looks like a very familiar queer-bashing sequence in a crowded bar, where a burly straight takes objection to Glen's cackling tales of sexual misadventure, only to cut away to the two in the middle of a verbose, yet entirely civil argument - was it the content this Hetero Harry objected to, or the volume? (Crucially, any homophobic abuse Glen and Russell encounter comes from offscreen, heard but never seen - it simply isn't worth the camera's, or these characters', time, and Haigh evidently has no interest in making an issue movie.)

Similarly, though the film is set among the tower blocks - Russell's granny flat, with its four-bar heater, tatty sofa and bric-à-brac mugs, has the potential to be as grim a location as anywhere else in social realism - Haigh overturns viewer expectations in making Nottingham appear as romantic a destination as Vienna or Paris were in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Sunset diptych: this is a place with its own funfairs and sunsets. The talk getting us from A to B rings true, which is key, and Haigh surely couldn't have wished for better performances. New has the showier role, mouthing off on topics from "the dominance of the straight narrative" to Rupert Graves' penis, but Cullen, nervily offering himself up to his partner's gaze, and the gaze of the camera, is very sweet, his Russell all too conscious that every word and kiss may be the last he gets to share with this guy. If they gave out prizes for Movie Chemistry of the Year, these two would be odds-on winners.

Weekend is available on DVD, and on demand, from Monday.

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