If rumour is to be believed, the FBI are currently spending their time getting pre-emptively flustered about Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, and the extent to which screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who penned Milk) has played up the shady former intelligence chief’s alleged closet homosexuality. Perhaps the Bureau doth protest too much, but in any case it’s safe to say any non-heterosexual dalliances that are featured in the film will be cast as mainstream Hollywood taking another ‘brave’ step towards breaking taboos around the depiction of homosexuality. In the meantime, however, British director Andrew Haigh is making rather greater strides towards a cinema that does not discriminate on grounds of sexual preference with Weekend, a touching, honest portrayal of same-sex romance.
The film sees quiet introvert Russell (Tom Cullen) – a beardy, flat-cap wearing real-ale drinker – pick up the charismatic, provocative Glen (Chris New) in a gay bar, only for their one-night stand to develop into something far more. So far, so clichéd, perhaps; but thanks to an accomplished script and engaging performances from the two leads, what follows makes for a tender depiction of emotional introspection with which gay and straight viewers can identify alike.
While slick continuity, flattering lighting and happy endings may be the modus operandi of the Hollywood rom-com, Weekend succeeds because both form and content are firmly embedded in the realm of realism. As such, Haigh spurns the credible indie soundtrack that has become a staple of the non-classic romance with a total lack of non-diegetic music, while handheld camerawork interspersed with long takes provides an intimate perspective on the couple’s nascent relationship. And with Glen revealing he is about to depart for America for two years, the trajectory of their brief encounter belongs not to the idealised, romantic universe of hetero-hegemonic Hollywood – how could it? – but instead to a satisfyingly imperfect reality.
The pair’s chemistry, meanwhile, is a source both of genuine emotiveness and of humour. Indeed, one is almost inclined to feel that, as two men, their bantering repartee feels more funny, more natural, and more persuasive than were it to be between a man and a woman. In one wryly staged moment, for example, the awkward morning farewell following the pair’s initial fling is comically juxtaposed against the amorous post-one-night-stand goodbyes of a straight couple from a neighbouring flat, while, in the foreground, Russell and Glen part company with a firm handshake and a polite comment.
Elsewhere, Haigh drops in wonderfully nuanced touches, such as the subtle pride with which Russell dons a pair of shiny new Nikes for his second night out with Glen, or the former’s brief agonising over whether to use a kiss or an ellipsis at the end of a text; the use of such universally familiar traits helping the film find an emotional affinity that extends outside of sexual proclivities.
This is not to say that Weekend disguises its gayness in any attempt to appease the delicate sensibilities of a straight audience. Sex is fairly explicitly present, though in word more so than in deed, with Glen working on a verbal art project that seeks to combat his observation that gays don’t talk about sex in public unless it’s campy innuendo: a circumstance dictated by what straight society will and won’t accept hearing. Moreover, the film is powerfully in tune with topics specific to gay life: perhaps the most touching moment is when Glen adopts the role of Russell’s father so that Russell – raised in foster-care – can finally undergo the rite of passage that is coming out to one’s parents; a self-substantiating ritual previously denied him by the absence of his real father, and one that Haigh endows with as much gravity and sentiment as any of straight life’s milestones.
Instead, the strength of Weekend is that it maintains its identity as a piece of queer cinema while simultaneously transcending this niche. Through its humour, its affable naturalism, and its exploration of matters of fear and acceptance, shame and love, self-knowledge and identity, it demonstrates the human factors that afflict us all regardless of sexuality, and in doing so escapes any potential cultural ghettoisation as ‘just’ queer cinema.
If there is a criticism, it’s that the film occasionally gets bogged down in using Glen and Russell’s dialogue as a means to explore larger themes of homosexual life and societal tolerance. Hence the intense, late night, drawn-out, coked-up conversation which occupies a significant tract of the film’s middle act, and resembles nothing so much as, well, an intense, late night, drawn-out, coked-up conversation, which verges on becoming tiresome.
It’s a forgivable episode though, not only because Weekend has a hell of lot of ground to cover in terms of the manifold personal, social and sexual issues it raises both within its romance plot and as a queer text in a straight-dominated culture, but most importantly because it is so self-consciously aware of these issues, and tackles them as comprehensively as possible within the confines of its narrative. Weekend isn’t going to change the world, but the self-reflexive maturity with which it handles its subject matter is a minor enlightenment.
Weekend is out from Friday 4 November.