Weekend

The year is coming to a close faster than I’d like and I still have quite a few movies to see. But I can’t imagine anything else affecting me the way “Weekend” did. If “The Help” and “The Tree of Life” moved me, and they did, then I must have responded to this movie on a spiritual level. This is a profound work of art that builds not on plot, traditional narrative, or any real discernible structure, but the full and complete development of two of the year’s most memorable characters. What happens here unfolds so organically, over the course of two days, it’s like watching real life happen before your eyes. And it contains stretches of dialogue so riveting and honest, I felt like the guy standing on the other side of a wall listening to an intensely personal conversation.

The what and why could be easily over-simplified: Russell goes to a seedy Nottingham bar. He cruises a handsome guy — unsuccessfully, at first. The next morning they wake up together at Russell’s apartment. The one-night stand is named Glen. He pulls out a tape recorder and asks Russell intimate details about his sex life–for an art project, he says. Russell demurs at first; but with a little coaxing, he relents, opening up to the small degree he’s capable. They exchange numbers, but meet up again later that same day. This leads to an extended sequence, as the two men, still perfect strangers, spend the afternoon at Russell’s apartment. But it isn’t what you think. Yes, they have sex, but it’s merely the punctuation mark to a sequence of brilliant conversations where we learn more about these two men: Russell is the hopeless romantic, a little naive, and not altogether comfortable with his sexuality. Glen is his antithesis, a bombastic and hyper cynic who prods Russell for personal information like an insistent child, while quickly and cleverly protecting himself from likewise intrusion. Before he leaves, Glen drops the bomb that he’s leaving for Seattle the next day for a two-year art course. This leaves them little time. They’ll spend the night together again, and into the next morning. Fueled by cocaine and weed, the two men, locked in Russell’s apartment, engage in a fascinating game of self-discovery, as each of them begins to understand the consequences of personal isolation. Their conversations — sometimes frantic, often angry — take them to places some couples never go after a lifetime together, and happen as swiftly as a kick to the gut. This is deeply personal stuff on display.

Do Russell and Glen actually fall in love? I don’t know how important that is, but I have my own feelings. At the very least, they grow astonishingly close over the weekend, and their situation would have been ripe for a classic romantic Hollywood ending. But writer-director Andrew Haigh is too smart for that. He understands these characters down to their fibers, and allows them and their story to draw to an implacable but realistic close. What happens in the end has the ring of absolute truth.

The key to “Weekend” is the performances. In Tom Cullen, as Russell, and Chris New, as Glen, Haigh has uncovered two gifted talents. How did he manage to cast two actors with such inextricable chemistry? The conversations are so effortless, and Cullen and New are so natural, I could easily have been sitting in the same room, instead of watching the moments unfold on a screen. The discussions about sex are frank but whimsical, and far more graphic than the two sex scenes, which Haigh handles with dignity and respect for his characters. He allows those brief moments to grow out of the situation, and never exploits them. “Weekend” isn’t about sex, anyway. What Russell and Glen endure, and where they end up, is far more profound than tawdry physical gratification. Andrew Haigh has created two original characters out of whole cloth, and allowed them to think, feel, agonize, and discover old wounds and fresh feelings about themselves and each other, so that by the end, I’d invested in them both emotionally. This movie shook me up in ways movies so rarely do, and I didn’t want it to end. “Weekend” is, so far, the best film of 2011. I dare a better one to come along.

2011; starring Tom Cullen, Chris New; directed by Andrew Haigh; 97 min; unrated (for adults)