A first glance an English film about a relationship between two young gay men, one of whom lives in a council estate apartment, invites comparisons to films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) and Beautiful Thing (Hettie Macdonald, 1996). The sexuality of the two men in Weekend and their developing relationship is the foremost focus of the film, while the lower socio-economic setting is recognisably that of an English kitchen-sink drama. And yet while not to diminish the significance of earlier films exploring gay identity, Weekend is something of a revelation in its sophisticated yet heartfelt depiction of the brief affair shared by swimming pool attendant Russell (Tom Cullen) and artist Glen (Chris New). For a start, Weekend is neither a coming out story nor a coming-of-age film. The characters – and presumably a lot of the target audience – are beyond such narratives. Instead the film looks at the shifting needs, desires and attitudes experienced by Russell and Glen during their affair.
Visually writer/director Andrew Haigh creates a strong tension between the different ways Russell and Glen present themselves in public compared to how they express themselves privately. Weekend alternates between mostly static long and medium shots of the characters in public spaces, such as nightclubs, bars and motorways, with intimate handheld close-ups of just their faces, to capture moments of private conversation and intimate body language. This is further enhanced by the sound design where the noises that the audience hears in the long and medium shots are those heard by Russell. This technique indicates how Russell experiences a private life (suggested by the sound design) that is different to his public life (suggested by the long and medium shots). Glen, on the other hand, is more open about expressing his sexuality so doesn’t separate his private and public life in the way he interacts with the world. Such themes are further developed as the pair debate what it means to live as a gay man, to what extent do some people still have difficultly understanding gay sexuality and to what extent is that their problem. One of the many joys of Weekend is seeing such complex issues being discussed so frankly and honestly by characters who are most qualified to discuss them.
An extension of the perception theme is in the film’s commentary on the way straight audiences respond to homosexuality. Many previous films depicting gay sexuality, especially the ones that aren’t exclusively pitched at gay audiences, have historically shielded away from actually showing gay sex. Films such as Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008) are commendable for their part in introducing gay narratives to wider audiences, but they were still extremely coy about showing the physical side of male same-sex relations in a way that films about straight couples are not. In Weekend this issue is scrutinised when Russell questions Glen about his art project, which involves making recordings of previous lovers describing how they met and then eventually had sex. Russell – who keeps a private typed diary as a contrast to Glen’s public recordings – argues that gay men don’t like talking about sex publicly and straight people don’t want to hear it; hence, the absence of expressions of gay sexuality in popular culture.
The debate about Russell’s art project can clearly be applied to Weekend itself, and the film does possess a fascinating self-reflexivity in the way it questions how it will be received. This self-awareness also reveals just how considered Haigh has been in the way he directs the film’s sex scenes. At one point Glen half jokingly mentions that the only audience for art expressing gay sexuality are gay men who want to see cocks. Haigh therefore avoids showing cocks and overtly pans the camera just above the waistline to draw attention to his deliberate decision to defy expectations. By visually removing such an obvious symbol of male sexuality, but by still suggesting it so as not to deny its significance, the sex scenes contain a rawness, frankness and explicitness without ever being graphic or indulgent. The result is several scenes where sexual acts express the physical desire and emotional connection of the characters in a way that is rarely seen in cinema of any kind.
It would be a shame if focusing on the stylistic techniques and themes of Weekend suggested that it is a didactic message film, because it is ultimately a very moving love story. The intensity that comes from the film is a result of its willingness to intelligently engage in issues of sexuality, identity and representation, not despite it. The film’s biggest triumph is one of its final shots that begins as a public wide shot and then slowly zooms into a tightly framed private close-up. It signals an important final moment of character development and delivers a powerful emotional surge for the audience. During the zoom, off-screen characters yell taunts at the pair and Russell’s glare at them is almost directed straight at the audience to confront us with our own potentially unevolved or childish uncomfortableness with gay sexuality. Nevertheless, the pair have their private moment in the public space, although in a brilliant masterstroke Haigh drowns out a piece of key dialogue with on-screen noise. It’s a similar technique to the one used by Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation (2003), but in Weekend it has more resonance due to the play on private/public space throughout the film that results in a moment so private that not even the audience get to fully share it.
Weekend is one of the most impressive films ever made about love. Haigh’s confidence and intelligence as a filmmaker, has resulted in a sincere and emotionally engaging film. At first glance Weekend seems to have much in common with My Beautiful Laundrette and Beautiful Thing, but the film it really does evoke is a far older English romance/drama about social conventions. That film is David Lean’s 1945 masterpiece Brief Encounter and Weekend is arguably its modern day reincarnation.