Nothing much happens in Weekend, and yet by the end of it we feel as if we’ve seen the entire world unravel before our eyes. This miniature masterpiece doesn’t rely on exciting plot twists or screenplay gimmicks and doesn’t bother “telling a story”. Instead, it’s a soulful snapshot of 21st century love and the timeless struggle we all face trying to find out who we are.
Set in Nottingham, the film opens as we see Russell (Tom Cullen) getting ready for a Friday night out. He goes to a house party where we notice how he’s the most reserved of them all, while the others shout and laugh as they share anecdotes, Russell seems to just be there taking it all in. By the time he leaves—assuring the rest he’s going home—we see a slight change in him as he instead enters a gay bar. If you go into the movie knowing absolutely nothing about it (which is quite advisable), this might be the moment where you’d go “Oh, he has a secret life” and start waiting for cliché twists.
However, the story surprises us in more than one way and we soon see Russell shyly following a man he’s set his eye on. His name is Glen (Chris New), and he has a devilish look in his eye. He scans Russell and seems to think he’s probably not good enough for him. We later see Russell dancing with someone else, as Glen stares in the background. The screen fades to black. It’s morning and Russell is making coffee for two. Subtly the film suggests that we’ve just skipped conventional “let’s hook up” scenes and instead it provides us with a mystery. Who did Russell take home?
To think how all of this happens in a matter of seconds is testament to writer/director Andrew Haigh’s economy as a filmmaker. He understands that this medium is much more efficient than all the other arts, and that in its pragmatism it can actually contain much more valuable information than if we’d gone through a literal dissection of the events leading to where we are. We learn that the man was indeed Glen, and during the period of the title weekend, the two will embark on a journey that will undoubtedly change their lives.
Weekend above all is a superb character study in which we are given access to the utmost private moments of two men. Since the entire movie focuses on these two, it’s impossible not to praise the work of the extraordinary actors who committed themselves to becoming ordinary people. Cullen plays Russell with the coyness of a newborn child who wants to absorb the whole world. His character is an orphan and as such, this is something that defines him without turning into the only thing that matters.
We see how Haigh beautifully suggests Russell’s need to create his history by having him keep a journal of sexual encounters and having his entire house filled with trinkets that he bought in yard sales and flea markets, objects with the kind of history he will never have. That Russell is so private about his sexuality is only more heartbreaking, because it doesn’t say as much about sexual orientation as it does about his deep desire to learn who he is before being able to define himself as a full sexual being.
Inversely, we have New’s portrayal of Glen as someone who’s completely out there. Glen is almost too confrontational when it comes to his sexuality and his whole life and work are devoted to causes related to being gay in modern times. Upon first meeting Russell he makes him participate in an art project that establishes how each of them deals with their private lives. New infuses Glen with a playful energy that can’t help but show us glimpses of how once too he has his heart absolutely shattered which led him to come up with this exuberant persona.
Weekend could’ve easily relied on familiar terms like “opposites attract” to prove why these guys are drawn to each other. Instead it forgoes all conventional ideas of sex, orientation, personality etc. to provide us with a love story where people fall for each other’s essence. Few movies have been as raw about love as this one, and few have dared to explore the painfulness of love found and the surprising ecstasy of love lost, with such tenderness.
Unlike many movies that have dealt with gay love in recent years (including the troubling Brokeback Mountain), Weekend is the first that not for a second feels like a gimmick, we do not think differently of these characters because they are not the usual heterosexual match. By finding something specific and turning it into the most universal of love stories, Andrew Haigh has done nothing short of delivering the Brief Encounter of our generation.
The Criterion Collection has done an exquisite job in bringing this exceptional movie to home media. The DVD set features a pristine transfer which highlights the beauty of Ula Pontikos’ cinematography (in one of the featurettes, she expertly talks about how she wanted to infuse modern “washed out” British indies with some color). The making-of featurette makes for a fascinating experience as the eloquent Haigh talks about how the movie came to be, going from a small idea all the way to the funding process. He’s also interviewed about the film’s graphic sex scenes where he cleverly reveals how he wanted to teach heterosexuals about the way in which gay sex, too, can be tender and full of love (bravo!).
Chris New’s personal camcorder footage makes for a charming, much more informal viewing, while their audition tapes reveal an electricity that must’ve been impressive to see for the first time. Also included are a short essay about on-set photographers Colin Quinn and Oisín Share (who helped create some of the film’s most beautiful moments) and two short films by Haigh, in which we see how he was shaping his unobtrusive directorial style years before he began work on this film.