The Real(ism) Thing

Weekend  ***1/2

Richard Linklater charmed a large audience with his 1995 surprise hit Before Sunrise. The success of that film was a surprise not only because it was ostensibly independent and “small”; it was also structurally risky, being composed almost entirely of lots of dialogue between only two characters over a limited amount of time – one night. The fact that one of them was getting on a plane in the morning provided the only traditional dramatic tension. Like My Dinner With Andre, it was practically an experimental film – albeit one that made over five and a half million dollars off a budget less than a quarter of that.

What made such an unlikely movie work was a combination of three elements: absolute likability of the two performers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, both at their prime), very engaging dialogue, and beautiful locations, all over the city of Vienna, by night. The new film Weekend, written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is predicated upon the same set of challenges – two characters, lots of dialogue, limited time-frame – and even has the same dramatic engine, albeit this time, it’s a train that one of the characters is getting on – but a train to the airport, to catch a plane. Despite these similarities, the bittersweet Weekend is a very different fish to Before Sunrise.

The two leads – actors Tom Cullen and Chris New – are extremely likable, without a doubt, without the movie star gloss of Hawke and Delpy. They play Russell and Glen, two lads who hook up at a gay club in Nottingham on a Friday night, and spend the weekend together. One of them has the aforementioned train / plane combo to catch on the Sunday. That’s it, at least for premise, plot and structure. We follow the boys over the weekend, and listen to them talk – a lot – as they get to know each other, and we get to know them.

The dialogue is not always completely engaging and Nottingham is not Vienna. Indeed, in both of these areas, Haigh goes for such realism – and the film is nothing if not realistic – that he almost seems to emphasize how ugly and depressing Nottingham is while simultaneously allowing – and recording – Cullen and New’s murmurs, asides and back-to-camera mutterings. The oppressive grimness of Russell’s Nottingham world – a small flat on the fourteenth floor of a council building, where homophobic ASBOs make homophobic comments in the central “courtyard” below – is enforced and emphasized by skies that never seem to actually achieve real daylight, even in the late morning, and an almost constant stream of passers-by, in the city, who are chattering about nothing more than their next drink or lay.

As a slice of life drama – as pure realism, and an inside look into ordinary lives – the film is very well constructed, of a piece and ultimately surprisingly moving. There are slow patches, there’s no doubt – Russell and Glen discuss a wide range of topics and not all of them are interesting. Occasionally, they hit a high note – particularly when one of them makes the other (and thus us) laugh. I could have done with more ruthless editing, but Haigh here is striving – and succeeding – at capturing the rhythms of real life, and real life isn’t always as exciting as the movies.

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