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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness



Released in 2010, Beginners was written and directed by Mike Mills. The film is a largely autobiographical exploration of the issues he found himself needing to process after the death of his own father, Paul Mills. Paul had revealed that he was gay after being widowed at the age of 75 and forged a closer relationship with Mike Mills in the five years before he died from cancer. The numerous parallels between Mike and Paul Mills and the characters of Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, and Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, are outlined clearly in an article published in May 2011 in the New York Times. In February, 82 year old Plummer became the oldest actor to win an Oscar, for his supporting role as Hal. He also won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his performance. To date, Beginners has won a total of 25 awards.


The story is told through the eyes of Oliver, a 38 year-old graphic designer who is single. The film does not follow a chronological timeline, but rather cuts between three distinct narrative lines, which correspond in a natural way to the memories that are triggered for Oliver as he deals with Hal’s passing. The film also uses a mixture of documentary forms within the drama; real film clips and still photos set the historical context of being homosexual in postwar America in contrast with the experiences of gay men in 2003.

The Film

The film opens in 2003 when we see Oliver clearing out his father’s belongings after his death and taking responsibility for his dog, a very cute Jack Russell called Arthur, who is comically given a voice through subtitles. In this timeframe, Oliver falls in love with Anna, a French actress, whom he meets at a fancy dress party a few months after being bereaved and when he is still suffering significant grief. A clue as to the psychological credentials of the film is given in this comical scene when Oliver chooses to dress up as Freud and finds himself analysing other partygoers, one of whom is Anna. It is slowly revealed that both have struggled to commit to intimate relationships in their past, and that their shared sadness seems to be the spark that fuels their attraction. From this beginning, the film tells two different back stories. The first involves the young Oliver observing the somewhat distant, cold relationship between his parents as he repeatedly seeks answers to his question “ Is everything alright”. The only early parental relationship that we see is with his mother as he reflects on her unfulfilled life and her embittered sadness, in the light of what he now knows about his father’s sexuality.

The second flashback scenes tell the story of Oliver and his father after Hal has ‘come out’ as gay and begun a relationship with a much younger man, Andy. Hal begins this four year period with renewed vigour and a sense that it is never too late to get it right, before the discovery is made that he has lung cancer. This forces an even greater closeness to develop between father and son as Oliver becomes increasingly involved in caring for Hal. Hal insists on hiding his diagnosis from his lover, Andy, and his new gay friends, against the advice of Oliver who is continually seeking honesty and truthfulness. In essence this is a major theme of the film, as every character searches for their true self. The question that is repeatedly raised is what is real, especially where love is concerned. Oliver’s experience of seeing his father happy and in love with Andy suggests to him that success in an intimate relationship is possible and this knowledge begins to inform his exploration of love in the scenes with Anna.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

This film presents several issues of great importance that are relevant to doctors in general, and to mental health practitioners in particular. It highlights at its centre the important topic of sexual activity in older adults, often neglected by younger professionals in particular, and adds to that the additional issue of repressed sexual identity that emerges later in life. A viewing of Beginners would offer a good platform to discuss these topics alongside a reading of some suitable articles or books. One of the few studies of older lesbian and gay men undertaken in the UK, was published in the journal Diversity in Health and Care in October 2011(Volume 8, Number 3) and is called Hidden lives: the importance of recognising the needs and experiences of older lesbians and gay men within healthcare practice, byFenge & Hicks (abstract), in which one of the key themes is a focus on the issue of ‘coming out’. An interesting study published in the BMJ in 2010 entitled Sex, health, and years of sexually active life gained due to good health: evidence from two US population based cross sectional surveys of ageingby Lindau and Gavrilova at University of Chicago examines the relation between health and several dimensions of sexuality in middle and older age adults. For more extensive coverage of the topic, including a chapter about the older LGBT population in America, I would suggest a recently published book, entitled Sexuality and Aging: Clinical Perspectives by psychologist Jennifer Hillman, which was recently published in 2012. A section of the book is available to read at Google books.

Beginners also explores sadness in a number of the characters and gives an exquisite portrait of grief, as Oliver looses Hal without really having had a long enough time to get to know him after he has come out. The frustration for Oliver at having insufficient time to process the whole meaning of his parent’s marriage, before Hal’s death, is brilliantly captured. In interviews with the director Mike Mills, he makes clear that his reasons for making Beginners were grounded in his need to continue processing his own personal experience of his father in the last years of his life through the characters of Hal and Oliver.

I would highly recommend this film for its authenticity in presenting such sensitive issues of older age and sexuality in a truthful and unsentimental manner. All of the acting is superb and is certainly the reason that the film, and Christopher Plummer in particular, received so many awards. Oh yes, and Arthur the dog is unforgettable!

•  More information about Beginners can be found at IMDB, along with a short trailer.

•  Beginners is available to buy at

•  Minds on Film is written by consultant psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.