Weekend was British cinema’s surprise package of last year. With the likes of Tyrannosaur and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy soaking up the anticipation, not to mention new films from Steve McQueen and Lynne Ramsay, little was expected of Andrew Haigh’s second feature. A low-budget glimpse at a burgeoning relationship between two men, hopes were as they always are for a modest queer-themed picture: play a handful of festivals - some local, some international - and secure a DVD deal, where it will either slowly disappear or just as slowly pick up a tiny cult. This is what happened to Haigh’s first full-length effort, his semi-documentary account of a London rent boy entitled Greek Pete, though I suspect DVDs of that one have secured a few more rentals and purchases in Weekend’s wake.
The gay and lesbian festival circuit did come calling, but the audience awards garnered in San Francisco, Czechoslovakia and the rest were indicative of a more widespread response. Weekend had crossover appeal, both with cinemagoers and critics. By the end of 2011 it had become a regular fixture in the annual round-ups, with a surprisingly strong showing in the US. Bret Easton Ellis declared it the best of the year and even tweeted that it was “the greatest film about gay men ever made”. Back in the UK, the London Critics’ Circle awarded Haigh the Best Newcomer award, another to add to their festival equivalents he’d been steadily picking up over the past few months.
Admittedly we’re not talking a Brokeback Mountain level of success here - this is a modest British film from an unknown filmmaker with two unknown leads, after all - but there’s no denying that an impact has been made. Indeed. Peccadillo are releasing both Blu-ray and DVD editions from tomorrow (March 19th) and, by all accounts, pre-orders have been especially strong. We arguably have something more than a cult here with Weekend looking set to join the ranks of other popular gay-themed British films such as My Beautiful Laundrette or Beautiful Thing. So how do you explain that popularity? What is it about Weekend that connects with the viewer and has allowed it to crossover into the mainstream?
The first point to make relates to the film’s simplicity. There are no sudden plot twists, no concessions to genre, no attempts to add any artificial drama. The set-up is just this: two men meet at a club, spend the night together, and then the next few days together. We watch as they get to know each other during this time, with that mixture of tentativeness and excitement. They’re trying to figure out who this other person is and what their feelings towards them are - was this just a drunken one night stand or could it develop into something more? We’re dealing with universal themes here whatever your orientation. Weekend is a love story, nothing more, nothing less.
In interviews Haigh has repeatedly mentioned that he prepared in part by watching ‘talky’ films, the likes of or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset pair or certain Eric Rohmer titles. He also looked at a lot of low-key US productions - the work of Kelly Reichardt, for example, or Joe Swanberg - so as to better understand how these filmmakers are able to connect when ‘nothing happens’. In the absence of any British equivalents, these were Haigh’s templates. Heavy on the dialogue, low on incident, but never feeling stagebound or, more importantly, dull. They also have as much of an emphasis on the visuals as they do on the written word. Of course, they also had the backdrops of Vienna, Paris, Oregon and Chicago at their disposal; Weekend has Nottingham.
Visually, the approach is intimate. The conversations between the two leads are the key and so everything revolves around them. Stylistically there are no distractions, the camera preferring to act as silent observer. It keeps its distance, though never to the point where Weekend feels cold. Interestingly it’s the sound design which arguably has the greater effect - at times we almost strain to hear each and every word, thus crystallising the sense of intimacy. These conversations are about two men gradually opening up to each other, slowly understanding each other as they relate previous relationships and their respective ideas on life. They all take place in either noisy bars or a flat. We’re not supposed to be privy.
Needless to say a lot rests on the performances under such circumstances. Haigh was taking a gamble with Tom Cullen and Chris New inasmuch as neither had much big screen experience. Cullen had done a Welsh horror flick and a couple of shorts, whilst New had appeared in an episode of Casualty and a Silent Witness two-parter. Since Weekend’s release Cullen has had a significant role in the Black Mirror story The Entire History of You for Channel 4, though you would expect both to raise their profiles over the coming years. They’re superb in Weekend, nicely understated in roles that could easily be milked for clichés. Part of the dynamic and the chemistry between the pair is that they’re very different people with divergent attitudes to their sexuality and how they are perceived in public. Yet, importantly, they’re not ‘types’.
There’s a certain level of ordinariness to Weekend, then, which is refreshing. Though note the 18 certificate. Haigh didn’t conceive of the film as a populist venture and so there’s recreational drug use, sex scenes and some strong language to add flavour that central love story. The BBFC report is particularly interesting in this case, pointing out how much of this would warrant a 15 were it not for a couple of additional touches. One particular moment involves an “unusual” means of taking cocaine, whilst one of the sex scene has a “level of detail” deemed “too strong”. You could argue that Weekend doesn’t need these moments. They could have been excised without any major effects on the narrative if Haigh had wanted to pursue the lower - and therefore more commercially minded - certificate. Yet they also add to the ordinariness, providing an additional grit which emphasises the realism.
Furthermore the fact that such additions haven’t put off prospective audiences says a great deal. Does Weekend gain in their eyes because it refuses to make these minor concessions? Or do they simply not care enough for it to have an effect either way? Indeed, had the film been written with a large audience in mind - with all of the requisite ‘smoothing out’ that that suggests - would it have connected quite so well as it has? I’m inclined to believe that Weekend’s unassuming nature is the key to its success. Haigh made the film he wanted to, not the film he thought would have widespread appeal. That he managed to achieve both is to be applauded and taken notice of. Crowd-pleasing needn’t mean blandness and clichés.
Peccadillo’s Blu-ray of Weekend is a fairly standard affair disappointingly light on extras. The film itself is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks as spotless as you would expect from such a new production. Clarity is exceptional, contrast levels are very good and the whole thing looks no doubt as was intended by cinematographer Urszula Pontikos. With that said this isn’t the kind of film that knocks you over the head with its visuals, though of course we shouldn’t mark the disc down as a result. Indeed, the only flaw is the occasion bit of edge enhancement making itself known, though never to a distracting degree. The soundtrack, here presented in simple Dolby Stereo, does come across as a little too quiet. The sound design is such that certain scenes are intentionally hard to discern - the mumbles and mutterings are all part of the overall intimacy - yet there can be quite a discrepancy from one scene to the other. Whether this is inherent in the original soundtrack I can’t say, though do be warned. Optional subtitles, English or otherwise, were not available on the check disc provided, though the specs on various e-tailers suggest otherwise.
Special features, again on the check disc provided, amount to a post-screening Q&A with Haigh and his two leads plus ten minutes of behind the scenes footage. The latter is typical B-roll material and doesn’t real add anything. The former, however, does a good job of tackling the main issues of Weekend’s making. Haigh, New and Cullen are also on good form making for an agreeable watch. According to the specs on Amazon and other e-tailers we can also expect further interviews, a picture gallery with commentary and footage from the London Film Festival, though none of these were available to review. (The rating below for the special features accounts for the Q&A and behind the scenes footage only.)