Haigh subtly asserts that homosexuality is no longer at the margins, but also not quite in the center, either
Perhaps it’s the privilege of a second viewing or the five subsequent years of social progressivism, particularly within screen cultures, but Andrew Haigh’s 2011 Weekend just does not come across as “queer cinema.” The protagonists—Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New)—both wonderfully personified by newcomer actors, are undeniably, even viscerally, gay men. The film is about the magic of a chance weekend tryst and the personal and emotional effects of it. But even though the film is about a gay couple living out a physical relationship, with 2016 eyes it reads as a universal story of affection and the complexity of personal connections and disconnections.
The Weekend’s universality originates with Haigh. As he did in his follow-up film, 45 Years, the writer/director excavates from his material the innate humanity of his characters. Russell and Glen come across as fully-realized people, with rich backstories, entangled opinions on a variety of political and social topics and deep networks of friends and acquaintances. They are the sort of people that one would actually encounter in everyday life. Russell the lifeguard is extraordinarily lonely; Glen the artist is probably more socially aggressive than most. These are normal oddities. These are genuine people and their centrality to the film’s story brings Weekend immediately into a recognizable space, at least for Anglophone audiences. Their homosexuality is just a part of their overall aggressive mundanity.
The places in Weekend are each vividly rendered, granted a texture and an atmosphere. Much of the film is set in Russell’s apartment, fourteen floors up in a post-war brutalist Nottingham complex, surrounded by identical towers and a path-strewn green. His apartment is small, tidy and filled with second-hand dishes and implements. Haigh mines this setting for a number of recurring metaphors about fixedness, self-image and commitment. Perhaps the film’s most striking shots are those looking down on the green from Russell’s window as Glen traverses the paths—each of these is imbued with layers of emotional energy and yet more overlapping visual metaphors. It is beautiful filmmaking that seamlessly integrates set design and script—true auteurist cinema.
The film’s other places—various homes, city streets, clubs and a natatorium around Nottingham—are as equally deftly-executed as Russell’s apartment. This is mostly accomplished through Haigh’s establishment of space, specifically the nature of the cinematography. Weekend is composed almost entirely of still shots, the camera mounted on a tripod and simply observing “life” happening around it. It makes the film immersive, almost as if it were a documentary. All the places feel authentic and the people populating them real, where a darting, shifting and frenetic camera would force unwelcome narrative distance and artifice. Haigh does not use many long takes in Weekend—a stark contrast with the long-take-obsessed 45 Years—and the short, still scenes carry powerful pathos. Most remarkably, this style pulls the audience into the diegesis, making the viewer feel included in the film’s public spaces and like an intruder in its private ones, again a metaphorical message and the most salient argument in the film about homosexuality.
That Weekend is so absorbing, in a corporeal way, should be shocking. Its subject matter is male homosexuality, a social phenomenon that has always been marginalized and marginalizing. The gay man is the boogeyman against which most social norms have been constructed. The very (supposed) “un”-naturalness of male homosexuality sets the boundaries of how masculinity is defined, and masculinity serves as the foundation of Western civilization. Weekend, then, by all rights, should be alienating, distancing and defiant; it should radically and loudly push back against society’s constructions and dare to be different. This would make it a brave film, no doubt.
But Weekend does not do that. Haigh reverses the expectations. His thesis is that here are two men, Russell and Glen, leading run-of-the-mill lives in an ordinary town—the English Midlands is about as ordinary as a place can be—who happen to encounter one another and then emotionally connect. Their emotional connection, too, is normal adult behavior, and it allows for a wrenching and affecting conclusion. That conclusion, finally, is as everyman as it gets: circumstance is tragicomic, life is lonely and those basic truths should be embraced. The characters’ gay-ness is both central and coincidental. Haigh subtly asserts that homosexuality is no longer at the margins, but also not quite in the center, either. Weekend, then, is simply an extraordinary film crafted by a true master of the medium.