This Romantic Comedy About The Middle-Aged Isn't Just for Your Parents

by David Thomson | March 14, 2014

photo credit: Still via Free Range Films/telegraph.co.uk

Jim Broadbent is sixty-four; Lindsay Duncan is sixty-three. Plenty of us are in the same uneasy, open boat, but that serves to contradict one of the great canards of the film world. I am thinking of the notion that most films are made for an audience in the age range of two to eighteen. For years, we agonized over that orthodoxy, but by now it’s floating off into the deep darkness like George Clooney’s character in Gravity. Of course, there are movies for kids, and yes, I believe the poll that said, in the days before the Oscars were awarded, that 67 percent of Americans had seen not one of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture. But for Gravity, that number would have been significantly higher. Say it was 75 percent. That still leaves 25 going spare, and remember that the domestic audience for the Academy evening was 43 million, far less than 25 percent of Americans.

In other words, there is a mass of people who watch Turner Classic Movies, who use Netflix and who wait for those motion pictures that are adult, essentially free of violence and special effects, humane, challenging, and … rather like the life they lead. That rallying of people older than forty (let’s say) has changed the face of moviegoing, and it has altered the personality of the Academy. The big box-office pictures rarely get a glimpse of Oscar these days. After all, the bronze man is a senior citizen himself and one day perhaps he will have that hideous proposed Academy museum as his retirement home.

Meanwhile, Le Week-End (with Broadbent and Duncan) is a treasure chest. Nick and Meg Burrows have been married thirty years. They’re leaving Birmingham for a few days to celebrate the anniversary of their honeymoon, the last time they saw Paris. He is a philosophy professor at a university—or he was; he’s just been “retired”—and she is a teacher. They have a son, who sponges off them. They are very fond still, but wary of age and all the energies they feel may be slipping. She thinks he’s foolish and romantic; he regards her as tough and rather chilly. They’re both right, and they’re taking a hell of a chance going back to Paris.

That’s the first thing to note in a film that should not be treated as a soft, middle-aged romance. The Burrows are in danger of falling out of love and marriage. What begins as a mature couple reacquainting themselves with Paris slips into remarkable darkness. There are moments of sexual invitation and refusal that are startlingly direct. About halfway through the film, you may realize that this union could fall apart, and you can feel the reasons why. You don’t have to be in your sixties to feel afraid for them.

It’s still likely that some people will say Le Week-End is modest, charming and touching. Just give it a try. This is the fourth collaboration between director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. In the past they did The Buddha of Suburbia (a television miniseries), The Mother (in which a grandmother, Anne Reid, has an affair with a much younger man, Daniel Craig), and Venus (where Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips play elderly actors, and O’Toole’s character finds a far younger woman). They work comfortably in the field of naturalistic drama, though they like unexpected situations, good talk and outstanding actors. Michell is also the director of Hyde Park on the Hudson, Enduring Love, and Notting Hill (which admits to being a fairy story). Kureishi is a novelist and short-story writer whose film work goes back to My Beautiful Laundrette.

You don’t need to be told that Jim Broadbent is a magnificent and gentle actor. He won the supporting player Oscar as the husband in Iris. He was the gruff owner of Derby County football club in The Damned United. He was the frenzied impresario Zidler in Moulin Rouge, W.S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and Margaret Thatcher’s husband in The Iron Lady. If he’s ever given a bad performance, they burned it. But Lindsay Duncan is less familiar. She originated the part of Mme de Merteuil in the stage play of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (the Glenn Close role in the film). She was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Pinter’s The Homecoming on the London stage. She took a lead role in the original television version of Traffik. She is still an attractive woman, but the bleakness with which Meg sometimes regards her husband and herself is the heart of darkness for older people, a mixture of sadness and dismay. Duncan and Broadbent are flawless together, but they are better still in moments of helpless loneliness.

But there’s more. In Paris, on the street, they bump into Morgan, an American and an old friend of Nick’s. Indeed, as a young man he saw Nick as a mentor. But whereas Nick has gone to ground, Morgan has been a flier. He writes best-selling books. He has a grand Paris apartment , a new wife, much younger, and he has made her pregnant. He is played by Jeff Goldblum (as it happens, 61). Morgan is an amiable flake hiding behind a large ego and non-stop talk. He is the sort of American often mocked in British films. But Goldblum makes him brilliant, endearing and infuriating. He goes back to the 1970s and he has remained a character actor instead of a lead. (One exception to that is his drastically altered hero in David Cronenberg’s The Fly.) I don’t think he’s ever been better than he is here

Don’t run away with the idea that this is a film for your parents. There is no reason why people under 40 or pushing 30 shouldn’t see it. They might as well start the learning process while they can. But if you’re determined to be “young,” take a look at Jean-Luc Godard‘s film about young outcasts, Bande a Part (1964), before you see Le Week-End. I won’t spoil it for you. But that preparation will enhance your experience and underline the enduring principle that glorious kids reach a point where their bodies ache and their dreams creak.

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