Weekend (18)

This quiet story of gay love and loneliness will break hearts.

Weekend (18)
dir: Andrew Haigh

Invisibility is commonly cited whenever some­one dusts off that icebreaker: "If you could have any super power, what would it be?" The reality is not so desirable, as demonstrated in Andrew Haigh's Weekend, which touches on society's tendency to overlook loneliness or difference. This deceptively simple British film concerns two men whose one-night stand becomes a condensed, three-day romance. Like the couples in some of cinema's most piercing heartbreakers - Judy Garland and Robert Walker in The Clock, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset - they have a non-negotiable time limit on their relationship. One of them is going away for a long time.

The picture has anger and irritability mixed in with its delicacy. Weight and weightlessness, equally distributed - imagine a prizefighter wearing lace gloves, if you will. Or, better still, meet Glen (Chris New), a wee pixie who can rant above his weight. When he was 16, Glen came out to his parents on Mother's Day. Say what you like but it was more original than a box of Just Brazils. Now, he juts out his chin and superbly berates any strangers he perceives as homophobic. He's alert to the slightest slight. His antenna is always up. They can get you for that, you know.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is quieter and taller, with a long face on which a smile hangs like a favourite duffel coat. He is something of a bit-player in his own life. Even his most promising anecdotes about working as a lifeguard are undercut by inbuilt caveats. "I've saved lots of people's lives," he says, before adding, almost apologetically: "Mostly old people." When excitement is in the offing ("Someone drowned, once"), he deflates it dutifully ("I was off duty, though").

Cullen is very good at being still and silent - which is not to say that his walking and talking aren't up to snuff; just that Haigh has the wisdom to lavish close-ups on him, as he gazes from a 14th-floor flat in a drab high-rise. Sculptural is the word. For his face, not the high-rise.

Short, sharp Glen is picked up by soft, lanky Russell at a nightclub. The pick-up isn't shown - an elision characteristic of the film's sleepy, even elegiac, editing style. Russell is standing in the foreground of the shot, while Glen is slouched in the snug in the background. Without moving her camera, the cinematographer, Urszula Pontikos, racks focus so that Russell is reduced to a blur while Glen comes sharply into view in the distance. Cut to morning, interior, bedroom, coffee, Dictaphone. Dictaphone? Glen nags Russell to record his thoughts about their night together for use in an art installation and we feel the annoyance that Russell is politely concealing but also his curiosity about this strange creature in his bed.

Who is going to see this installation, Glen? "No one's going to come to see it, because it's about gay sex. The straights won't come, because it's nothing to do with them." Could he be expressing fears about the accessibility and commercial prospects of Weekend? If so, then Haigh addresses them in the structure of the film. Glen makes a stiff performance out of shaking hands formally with Russell after their first night together, while a heterosexual couple in the same shot have the luxury of kissing goodbye. But just as Russell becomes braver during the course of his weekend with Glen, building up to a kiss in public, so the film solicits carefully the goodwill of even the most reticent viewer. The first instance of sex is discussed but not shown, while the second is abbreviated. Saving the most explicit one until our emotional investment in Russell and Glen is guaranteed is a strategic piece of diplomacy that cleverly mirrors Russell's gradual thawing-out.

One of the magical things about the film is that is that it is constructed before our eyes, like the stage set in Stop Making Sense. Glen craves visibility because he's tired of the straights getting all the books and movies and billboards. He argues that gay people have to make their own narratives, while heterosexuals inherit theirs fully formed. Weekend is partly a rejoinder to these criticisms, just as Go Fish was before it, with its lesbian protagonists complaining about the pathetic behaviour of lesbian protagonists. You feel that Glen would be awfully pleased if he could somehow know that he is a character in Weekend. "That's more like it," he might say, though a bit less succinctly.

Like Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, another film about loneliness in the city, Weekend makes fruitful use of long-lens cinematography, spying from afar on its actors, tangled up in the pubs-and-clubs crowd. Wonderland was set in London but Weekend is in Nottingham. It's novel for a film to get out of the capital, I feel. Does it the world of good. Look at those trams here, floating through the orange night. They seem as exotic as alien spacecraft. When Russell and Glen are back at the flat on their final, aching night together, the camera takes in a few snapshots of Nottingham's streets. They look as empty as the surface of the moon, or a dance floor at 6am.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban