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TORONTO – A playful homage to the café dance scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part is the most direct manifestation of the limber nouvelle vague spirit that ripples through Le Week-end. A grownup serio-comedy about the regrets and underappreciated rewards of time-worn love and companionship, this fourth collaboration between director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is pleasurably supple in its mood shifts between droll verbal comedy and penetrating emotional truth. While not without touches of precious affectation, the film is imbued with an engaging mix of warmth and prickliness by the lovely, lived-in performances of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan.
In his novels and screenplays, Kureishi has explored relationships and questions of identity as shaped by family, race, social environment and politics. Working on an intimate canvas, the writer is in a reflective, often rueful mode here. He turns his insightful gaze to a couple well into middle age, and the ways in which their sense of themselves and one another has weathered three decades of marriage. The characters invite comparison with the duo in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight and its predecessors in the trilogy, twenty years on.
Birmingham college philosophy professor Nick (Broadbent) and schoolteacher Meg (Duncan) are first seen taking the Eurostar from London to Paris for a 30th anniversary weekend. Instigated by Nick in a bid to reinvigorate their sexually stale union, the trip gets off to a rocky start when he books them into a cheap dump. Refusing to sleep in so much depressing beige, Meg takes charge of the cash and credit card and moves them into a swanky hotel, ignoring Nick’s fretfulness about the expense.
A plush suite with an Eiffel Tower view and a delicious lunch do much to soften Meg’s demeanor, but her irritation with Nick is rarely dormant for long, despite ample evidence of their deep mutual affection. It gradually emerges that he is being nudged into early retirement, while she’s fed up with teaching and wants a fresh start that may or may not include him.
Kureishi has a weakness for overwritten dialogue, but anyone who’s ever been in or closely observed a long romantic partnership will recognize aspects of the sour-sweet dynamic here, with all of its frictions, resentments, and consolations too. Over visits to museums, churches, bookstores and bistros, Nick and Meg bounce back and forth between harmony and discord. Both are revealed to be at separate crossroads, which he faces in a cold fearful sweat, and she approaches with more stoicism.
The catalyst that prompts each of them to step outside and take a broader view of their marriage is a chance encounter with Morgan, a Cambridge buddy Nick hasn’t seen in years. Played in a slyly amusing turn by Jeff Goldblum that injects a different kind of energy into the film, Morgan is equal parts smug and charming.
A successful writer who fled New York and his first marriage, Morgan invites the couple to a gathering of similarly over-achieving friends to celebrate the publication of his latest essay collection. Simmering after a bitter argument, they both have private exchanges during the evening with strangers that expose their wounds and longings – Nick with Morgan’s stoner son (Olly Alexander), and Meg with their host’s gorgeous pregnant second wife (Judith Davis). Even more telling is her encounter in a quiet moment on the balcony with a handsome guest.
Despite Meg’s bluntness as she describes feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction and fury – a sharp contrast to Nick’s bruised vulnerability – Duncan deftly keeps the moody character’s acerbic side in check. Broadbent is forced to play a scene of sexual desperation that no actor could dignify, but he refuses to make terminally smitten Nick a doormat.
In the movie’s terrific climactic stretch, Morgan raises a glass during dinner to Nick. His generous words underline the high esteem in which he holds his old friend and the enormous influence Nick had on the American as a young man, while also pointing up the glaring differences between the reality of a life and the view from outside. Nick’s brutally frank response kills the conversation by exposing that gap, eliciting an unexpected rejoinder from Meg. Michell and his actors handle the awkwardness of this interaction exquisitely.
In addition to its unsentimental observation of the compromises of marriage, Kureishi’s screenplay gives poignant consideration to midlife nostalgia for youthful promise and idealism, a thread nourished by the use of songs by Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. Ending on a note of irresolution that’s calculatedly whimsical yet irresistible, the movie is modest but affecting, enhanced by the cool strains of Jeremy Sams’ mellow jazz score and by Nathalie Durand’s unfettered camerawork. But its chief distinction is the intelligence and heart of its central performances.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Music Box Films)
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, Olly Alexander, Judith Davis
Production companies: Free Range Films, Film4, BFI, Curzon Film World, Le Bureau
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriter: Hanif Kureishi
Producer: Kevin Loader
Executive producers: Sue Bruce Smith, Philip Knatchbull, Louisa Dent
Director of photography: Nathalie Durand
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Music: Jeremy Sams
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Sales: Embankment Films
No rating, 93 minutes.
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