The greatest challenge facing most romantic films today is the genuine difficulty in endowing the central relationship with any kind of meaningful weight or sense of urgency. Far too often the priority of offerings within the genre is to feed audiences the more marketable happy ending and, by effect, a hollow reaffirmation of true love’s capacity to endure. When that happy ending feels unearned or that it somehow betrays the characters we get to know onscreen, is that false affirmation actually worth expending a more truthful conversation about what love and affection are capable of providing, for better and for worse? Can’t more be expected of our modern romances?
Andrew Haigh’s melancholy yet joyous Weekend counts on no such delusions when it comes to mapping the direction of its characters. As a result, the romance at its center aches with searing honesty while challenging our perception of what love should be expected to offer us. At the same time, it retains an endearing tenderness and sweetness that captures precisely what those almost absurdly intense first few days of a truly meaningful relationship can feel like. As you watch the movie’s two lovers share the screen, it feels – at that very moment in time – as if theirs is the only relationship in the universe that matters.
The film opens on a nondescript Friday evening with Russell (Tom Cullen) readying himself for a small party his best friend is hosting. After enough time has passed to make a moderately decent showing, Russell excuses himself ostensibly to retire back to his flat for sleep. Instead of going straight home, he stops by a gay bar for a few drinks. After cruising a guy named Glen (Chris New), Russell brings him back to his place to have sex. The next morning Glen and Russell connect on a more emotional and intellectual level, eventually find themselves spending the vast majority of the remaining weekend in each other’s company. As the film’s title might suggest, an expiration date is attached to this romance. Any connection Russell and Glen might make is compounded by the latter’s plans to leave Sunday for long-term studying in the United States.
The two men use what time they have available to them to get to know each other. Russell, we understand, is the more reserved of the two. He never knew his parents. He is more reticent when discussing his sexuality or his love life and, as a result, seems to hold his friends at a distance. Glen, the art student, is in many ways the couple’s more overt half. He came out of the closet quite early. He gets into arguments with strangers at bars who are uncomfortable with how graphically he talks about his sex life. He clearly still hurts from the fallout of his previous relationship and therefore, we infer, keeps his sexual partners at arm’s length. The trajectory of Glen’s life is decidedly more unwieldy than Russell’s; even his friends don’t actually think he will make it through two years of art school.
When together, Glen and Russell share their life stories, go out drinking, discuss the broad politics of gay rights, take drugs and have lots of sex – not necessarily in that order. Their complementary personalities combust in ways that are occasionally baffling to them, but strangely thrilling at the same time. They hardly know each other, yet the connection they make – both physically and emotionally – is undeniable. Sunday afternoon comes all too quickly.
Admittedly, a romantic chamber piece with a prepackaged countdown hardly qualifies new hat; many will likely draw comparisons to conceptually similar films like Before Sunrise and the great Certified Copy. It’s not an unfair comparison, but what truly sets Weekend on its own course is Haigh’s eye for specificity. While those aforementioned films (marvelously) use their love interests as a means of addressing loftier questions like existentialism (Sunrise) or art (Copy), it is all achieved rather overtly. Haigh never attempts to frame his story against a larger, more ambitious conversation. He makes it a point to keep his sense of scale reigned in, explicitly portraying little beyond the specific vocal and physical dialogue Russell and Glen share while together. He additionally trusts his leads Cullen and New to explore their characters’ idiosyncrasies organically and on their own terms. As a result, these two men feel like entirely real people making a connection as unique individuals. At a time when love interests at the movies are frequently written conveniently to move the romance forward, it is actually the love interests themselves in Haigh’s film who shape what their relationship becomes.
That is not to say the specificity of Weekend makes it esoteric. Universal truths speak volumes here, precisely because they are found in the smallest of details. When Russell and Glen get drunk or high, it diminishes their inhibitions enough that they are able to speak of themselves and each other with candidness that’s uncommon for two essential strangers. When they talk politics, it says less about the polemics of LGBT rights than it does about the way they perceive their respective sexual orientations. When they have sex, the camera lingers on very specific acts of lovemaking not because they titillate, but because it imbues the relationship with a physical chemistry that is every bit as crucial as their verbal chemistry.
Most importantly, Weekend offers what really should not be a unique outlook on what makes a relationship truly meaningful. As countless cinematic romances imply, we tend to think only the relationships that endure are the ones that count. But what of the relationships marked by impermanence? Is there no value to be found even when the constraints of time and circumstance cut short a promising romance? It’s impossible to ascertain that Russell and Glen would have lasted well beyond the weekend, had life only panned out differently. But there is little doubt those few days they spend together stand to influence almost every other relationship in their futures, which may or may not include a reunion some day. Haigh accomplishes in a remarkably short timeframe what is impossible for other filmmakers: he tells a beautiful story of a love that endures despite its astounding brevity.
Bottom Line: Maintaining an eye for details big and small, Weekend is a deeply felt and refreshingly truthful romance with great performances and a beautiful script.