There are few phrases in the English language that readily evoke notions of fairytale romance like “a weekend in Paris.” Of course, anyone who’s ever actually spent a couple of nights in the French capital knows very well that the City of Light, with its cramped accommodations and prohibitive pricing, has an unseemly habit of illuminating the gap, if not outright chasm, between fantasy and reality.
Consequently, as we join Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) on a train bound from Birmingham to Paris, we’re pessimistic over their chances of rediscovering the magic they encountered there on their honeymoon some thirty years earlier. From their first exasperated exchange, it’s apparent that the pence-pinching couple are carrying more baggage with them than just their overnight bags.
The wickedly funny and unflinchingly honest Le Week-End also marks a landmark anniversary for director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi as it’s now been 20 years since they first collaborated on The Buddha of Suburbia. In re-teaming with Kureishi, Michell pulls himself out of the career nosedive that recently included the uninspired Morning Glory and the misguided Hyde Park on the Hudson. While those endeavours saw the director working in the service of his stars—whether it was ensuring that Rachel McAdams not leave her comfort zone or positioning Bill Murray for an Oscar bid—Kureishi’s remarkably well-crafted, keenly observed script demands that Le Week-End’s leads do some heavy lifting.
Viewers will be forgiven if they believe they have this sexagenarian couple cased at first glance. As Nick fumbles through various pockets in a search for euros, this seems the sort of avuncular, innocuous role that Broadbent can slip into as comfortably as a well-worn cardigan. However, the scene—and, by extension, Nick—soon defies our expectations when Broadbent demonstrates a pointed sense of self-loathing over his own buffoonery. We’ve known this character only a handful of minutes but we’re already attuned to the fact he’s rather embarrassed by the doddering senior he’s become.
As Michell’s film progresses, we gain a greater understanding of where these characters are coming from. As Nick listens to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” on his iPod or catches a few seconds of Godard’s Band of Outsiders on television, it’s more than nostalgia that grips him. There’s a genuine connection he feels with the rebellious values extolled by those seminal counterculture works. In these moments, we’re made painfully aware that Nick and Meg came of age as outcasts but now must endure the indignity of aging into obsolescence just like everybody else. In fact, it’s increasingly apparent that they can’t bear to be so bloody predictable.
Undeniably, Le Week-End has much in common with Before Midnight (and is capable of weathering such comparisons extremely well). However, where Richard Linklater’s film benefits considerably from the audience’s 18-year familiarity with its central characters, Michell and Kureishi rise to the considerable challenge of imparting three decades of minor victories and major disappointments in the space of a briskly paced 90 minutes. As we’re constantly uncovering new facets of Nick and Meg, they never cease to fascinate us, particularly when they’re at one another’s throats.
Equally quick-witted and drawing from the same well of low-grade misanthropy (or perhaps it’s just Britishness), Nick and Meg enjoy an easy repartee, tossing cutting remarks with the aplomb and precision of circus knife throwers. (A small notebook could be filled with the film’s quotable lines.) Of course, their evident intelligence proves a double-edged sword, ensuring that they’re incapable of drifting through life blissfully unaware of how the ravages of time have reshaped their relationship. We admire their unwillingness to delude themselves and yet ache over the despondency that ensues. Identifying the potency of such frustration, Kureishi fashions an affecting examination of these two complex characters who are acutely aware of (and often openly aggravated by) their codependence and yet seemingly powerless to alter their lot in life.
Consequently, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Nick and Meg frequently resort to acts of impetuousness and immaturity in order to stave off the torpor of their well-established routines. Let it be said: a dine-and-dash from a high-end restaurant competes with Frances Ha for the year’s most exhilarating sprint through a city’s streets. Even better, it sends our bickering protagonists running headlong into Morgan (a wildly entertaining Jeff Goldblum), one of Nick’s former Cambridge colleagues who’s managed to monetize his pseudo-intellectual blather, and sets the stage for a fraught third act that has Nick and Meg’s marriage hanging in the balance.
Wedding its introspective and anarchic impulses into a comic melange that’s as compelling as it is uncomfortable, Le Week-End allows Nick and Meg to indulge in the fanciful before demanding that they confront the reality of their circumstances. In turn, it calls on us to consider how we conduct ourselves in our own relationships and question whether it’s possible to wear the emotional scars we inflict on one another with some measure of pride.
Director: Roger Michell
Writer: Hanif Kureishi
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2013