Weekend is conventional on the surface, but it ultimately reveals most movie romances to be the kids’ stuff we always suspected they were. While the film is a duet, we primarily see the story through Russell (Tom Cullen), a lonely young man who works as a lifeguard and occasionally interrupts his silent, stoned reveries in his small apartment to visit with friends and their children. Russell has affection for his buddies, but his relationships with them appear to be strained and formal, as he never seems to be able to shed an outward politeness long enough to enjoy and engage with the people around him. In the first few minutes of the film, Russell excuses himself from a party as soon as he realistically can, hits a club, and proceeds to get hammered while looking for someone he can go home with.
The other partner in this duet is Glen (Chris New), who’s initially presented to us as intimidating and otherworldly; he’s brash and confident, and he has the physicality of a man who owns the club while Russell wanders the bar and dance floors in a trance, like a little boy lost. But, whatever their differences, Russell and Glen wake up the next morning in Russell’s bed, and the proceeding two days they spend together comprise the remainder of the film.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh is working within the form of a traditional romance of missed opportunity, and he uses certain tropes expected of that kind of film to contain moments that are anything but traditional. We know that Haigh and his actors are working in a more intimate emotional realm than usual from the first post-coital conversation that Russell and Glen share. Russell was black-out drunk (or, out of shyness, is claiming to have been), and so he and Glen discuss what happened between them when they got back to Russell’s place—an encounter that the audience hasn’t been allowed to see.
This conversation is so specific and so unapologetically personal that even more smugly progressive audiences may feel uncomfortable. The writing and the acting aren’t stylized, or at least they aren’t stylized in a manner that’s inappropriate to the context. Glen knows he’s pushed something in Russell, that they’ve done something with a level of intensity that challenges Russell’s comfortable, casual disengagement from people (call it contented discontentment), and Glen’s clearly getting off on screwing around with the cute, introverted wallflower. This scene is Glen’s show, at least it is at first, as he’s stunned when he sees that Russell is willing to face him, in his fashion, and match his combative form of meet-cute. Russell’s earnest nakedness startles Glen, the perpetual show-off, allowing the real dance to begin.
Weekend would be worth seeing for the delicacy and perception of the opening 10 minutes alone, but Haigh never allows the tone to falter. Every moment advances the push and pull between Russell and Glen, which represents the classic argument between two closet romantics who repress that romanticism in differing fashions. Weekend is a study of the minute physical specifics of an instant attraction that, by the end of the film, has probably blossomed into a love that might trigger two personal reckonings. Every gesture made by Russell or Glen in this film has multiple meanings: When Glen plays with a candy bar like a phallus you understand that he’s assuming the role of the resolutely out gay man in a fashion that’s so theatrical as to ultimately be more revealing of his vulnerability than if he did nothing. In some ways, Russell eventually arises as the more confident of the two, as he doesn’t try nearly as hard to hide his heartache, which would be impossible, particularly with his pleading eyes, to camouflage anyway.
I’ve pointedly evaded Weekend’s distinction as a matter-of-fact romance between two ordinary, insecure, conflicted individuals who both happen to be men, but to avoid that distinction altogether is to indulge willful naïveté. Homosexuality’s influence on someone’s perception of their identity, particularly in a society that’s still largely disgusted with it, is clearly of paramount concern to Haigh. Gay slurs are heard, softly, subtly, throughout the film, as partial confirmations of Russell and Glen’s feelings of displacement and melancholia. But Haigh never uses his characters’ sexuality as a pat trump card that explains everything; he’s too decent, and talented, of a filmmaker to fall into such a trap. In an interview included in the supplemental Blu-ray materials, Haigh says that above all else he concentrated on capturing the specificity of the details of his characters’ lives—which like anyone else only partially includes their sexual orientation—as a means of attaining a greater universality. And with Weekend, one of the more intensely realistic and erotic romances ever made, he’s done just that.
As he discusses in one of the interviews included on the Blu-ray, writer-director Andrew Haigh was looking to steer clear of the consciously drab aesthetic that characterizes the kitchen-sink realism that's associated with certain British films, and this Criterion transfer has preserved cinematographer Ula Pontikos's exceptional work with a characteristically excellent attention to detail. Mostly shot with a handheld camera so as to allow the actors greater freedom of movement, Weekend is also lit with a clean precision that achieves a still-photographic stylization while simultaneously grounding the film in an identifiably everyday reality. In this transfer, primary colors pop out with neon intensity and the grays and blues that largely define the film's color scheme have been rendered with impressive clarity. The 2.0 Master Audio track is suitably immersive, which is particularly evident in the club scene near the opening of the film as well as the carnival scene that occurs later on.
The 30-minute collection of interviews with writer-director Andrew Haigh, cinematographer Pontikos, producer Tristan Goligher, and actors Tom Cullen and Chris New specifically produced for this disc allow the principles to discuss the methods of making Weekend as well as its themes and intentions. Haigh gets the most screen time, and he’s straightforward about his concerns over making a film that would be characterized strictly as a "gay movie," as he says he was intent on creating a character study with the romance serving as the narrative engine. Actors Cullen and New discuss blocking, motivation, and improvisation, and Pontikos concedes that she was afraid of messing up long takes that might squander the momentum of Cullen and New’s performances. A separate piece with Haigh covers the film’s sex scenes, and while it could have easily been integrated into the 30-minute piece, it’s obvious that the disc’s producers understandably wanted to stress to audiences the film’s unusual commitment to showing scenes of realistic and revealing intimacy, an impression that’s confirmed with the Cullen/New audition footage that’s also included.
Cahuenga Blvd. and Five Miles Out are two short films previously made by Haigh, and they reveal that he has, for some time, been nurturing themes of brief encounters that draw something internal out of their participants. Cahuenga Blvd. plays as a six-minute scratch-book of ideas that would directly inform Weekend, and Five Miles Out is a haunting, superbly polished piece that shows a director readying himself to take on a feature film.
The essay by David Lim is also excellent, but the remaining features are negligible: largely meaningless on-set video footage shot by New and others involved in the production; a tediously ponderous video essay on the film’s set photographers, Oisín Share and Colin Quinn; and a theatrical trailer.
Weekend is one of contemporary cinema’s great love stories, perhaps one of cinema’s great love stories period.