Did you ever go to a movie and feel like you’ve wandered into a respectable little stage drama by mistake? That’s very much the sense with Le Week-End, a calculated English drama about an almost-retired couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) on a Paris weekend celebrating their 30th anniversary and facing marriage renewal or collapse.
The movie is the third feature film collaboration between veteran English director, Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and screenwriter-playwright Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). Both Michell and Kureishi are key figures in the British film revival of the eighties and nineties and they have a knack for wrapping uncomfortable subjects in homey packages. The pair’s previous collaborations include a TV mini-series, The Buddha of Suburbia (based on Kureishi’s novel) and two features, The Mother, which featured a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig in an affair with his girlfriend’s mother, and Venus, Peter O’Toole’s swansong, in which he plays a dying actor infatuated with a teenager.
Age and the fading fires of sexuality are partly the subject of Le Week-End as well, though both Meg (Duncan) and Nick (Broadbent) are the same age, almost retirees, whom we first meet fussing about their euros and baggage on a bus, not the most romantic beginning to their anniversary getaway. Upon arriving at the tiny hotel where they first had their honeymoon, Meg turns heel and spins:
“It’s … beige,” she says with a horror that suggests the walls are crawling with vermin.
They depart for a new hotel, Nick nervously counting euros all the way. Once the bellboy is paid, in their new palatial surroundings there’s a tingle of lubricious possibility in the air. (“Can I touch you?” asks Nick tentatively.) But Meg shuts that down fast.
There’s painful old business here, but explanations are withheld. They dress for dinner, and Meg’s mood lightens with good food. Nick is a Cambridge-educated philosophy professor who’s being nudged out of his job. Although at first he comes across as a hen-pecked old sweetie, he’s more complicated than that. Nick is jealous, needy, obsessed with being abandoned. (a point made a little too obviously when, after raiding the hotel mini-bar, he plugs in his iPod and brays along loudly to Bob Dylan: “How does it f-e-e-e-e-e-l to be on your own?”) Meg, a secondary-school teacher, is skittish and smothered, and he worries she’s straying with another man. “It’s ME I want more of,” she says in exasperation.
All this feels a little like a very English sequel to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, fast-forwarded by 30 years. While they squabble, Meg and Nick do all those Paris things – museums and art galleries, bistros and bookstores. Both Broadbent (Iris, Topsy-Turvy) and Scottish stage and television veteran Duncan (Alice in Wonderland) are effortless at delivering Kureishi’s arch, somewhat overliterate dialogue with panache and a sprinkling of pathos. She’s mean and frustrated, he’s clinging and pathetic. Paris isn’t helping.
What this couple clearly needs is to put their miseries in perspective, and have something to feel superior about. In one of their truces, they stop to kiss on the Paris streets and are suddenly interrupted by a booming American voice. The owner is Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an American academic star who was once Nick’s protégé. He flirts with Meg and promptly invites the pair to a launch party to his latest popular book, to meet his sexy second wife and his European intellectual friends. Morgan is an ass, but as played by Goldblum with lip-smacking self-love, he’s a highly entertaining and generous ass, and a respite from Nick and Meg’s small, disappointed lives.
Le Week-End is very good at the things that British drama, on the big and small screen, is known for – heightened language, precision acting, those bitter-coated little sugar pills of emotion – but the script feels slight when it moves outside the small, barbed circle. Morgan and Nick’s discussion of their radical youth rings particularly hollow, and the visual quote of the café dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders less an homage than kitsch travesty.