Two strangers are drawn to each other, but one of them has a place they absolutely must be within a day or so, but they let their romance bloom despite the visible end. It’s a common subject for the movies, and when it’s done well, the results can be quite stunning. Richard Linklater caught lightning in a bottle twice with the ideal and youthful Before Sunrise and its honest, mature sequel Before Sunset. Abbas Kiarostami put a twist on the concept that forces the audience to participate instead of just observe with Certified Copy. Now, add Andrew Haigh to the list of filmmakers to pull it off; his Weekend (and it is his: Writer, director, and editor) is an audacious and intelligent look at homosexual love in a heterosexual culture using the same device, but it is a movie for everyone, because it is also about how some of us are shy and some of us are not, about how some of us are trusting and some of us are not.
Russell (Tom Cullen) is out of the closet, but quite shy. He is not ashamed to be gay, but he would rather not be the one displaying love in public in a world where such actions are mostly left to straights. But Glen (Chris New), whom Russell has a one night stand with, is discontent with homosexuals being shamed to keep their sex lives and orientation to themselves even though heterosexuals can flaunt without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. The two immediately tae to one another because of these differences, and by being with someone apparently so far away, they hope to find themselves. To tell you more about would be to deprive you of a great film. Russell and Glen decide to get to know each other, so we get to know them, too.
Weekend is very much a film about two people getting to know each other. That one of them won’t be around long gives everything a sense of urgency, so they waste little time getting into the deep and personal conversations. Cullen and New give greatly nuanced performances, providing their characters with depth that the screenplay requires of them but does not explicitly give them. If Russell and Glen were played by actors who were not so confident and intelligent in when to hide feelings and when to let them pour out, Weekend could have been too messy and uneven, but with Cullen and New, Haigh’s screenplay can present itself as the philosophical and intelligent work that it is. This may not be a screenplay for the ages—Glen is considerably more interesting than Russell for most of the film, and the plot occasionally delves into cliché—but it wasn’t far from it to begin with, and with the strength of the performances, it certainly reads like one. Not a word is wasted. It knows when to be funny, when to be sad, when to be romantic, and pulls off each. Just when you think the movie will never be better than when the two talk about what it is like to have a gay relationship in a world that only looks out for straights, it gets intensely personal and even more effective. A story like this could easily mistake mere proximity to the end with a division between acts, but instead, everything builds, builds, builds, and there is a clear structure to the relationship regardless of the inevitable time bomb.
Just as important is the success of Haigh’s naturalist aesthetic, which largely sticks to Russell’s point of view. A shaky frame will reveal his tension or uncertainty, and the long takes remind us of the preciousness with which he regards each moment. Tone is of the utmost importance here, and the ticking time bomb assures that it must be set quickly, and Haigh guides us along effortlessly. Notice the jump cuts during the most important conversations, suggesting that the two have been talking for longer than we see. Likewise, the precious, intimate moments are edited with a freedom that mirrors the spirit of our protagonists. If Weekend was conventionally shot and edited, letting its screenplay do all the work, it would be a very good film, but that Haigh is so precise and deliberate with his style makes it a great one. When his screenplay points out how ridiculous it is that that so many are comfortable with visible affection between gays, he makes sure that we realize he believes it. He is not gratuitous with sex scenes, but he does not pull punches, either. For such a dialogue-driven film, Haigh finds a way to make the visuals just as important without abandoning the minimalism that keeps us so tied to Russell.
Not once does Weekend presume to be more intelligent than it actually is. As a film about the difficulties of love and sex, about pulling yourself out of an identity crisis, about the difficulties of gay life, Weekend is honest and profound. Its characters grapple with real issues, about who they are and who they want to be, about what it means to compromise or love, and like real people, it searches and searches but is never completely sure that the latest answer is the right one. And for that reason, and so many more, Weekend is a great film.