There’s a larky, loopy vibe reminiscent of the early French New Wave in much of Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End,” an effect accentuated by the simple fact that the film is set in Paris and boasts a jaunty Gallic score by Jeremy Sams. But it isn’t a carefree romp about reckless young lovers, but rather an often intense and poignant comedy-drama about a pair of sixty-year old Brits, a married couple who’ve come to the City of Lights, where they’d honeymooned, for their thirtieth anniversary, carrying more emotional baggage than luggage.
The tension between Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) and her husband Nick (Jim Broadbent) is evident in the first scene, as they travel by train to France, with him slightly befuddled and her more matter-of-fact. And it explodes for the first time when they reach their hotel, a decidedly cramped establishment frugal Nick has selected but Meg refuses to stay in. After insisting on a long taxicab ride to see the sights, she decamps at a far more elegant alternative, where they take the only accommodation available—a large suite that’s obviously beyond their means.
From here they film follows them as they go about the city, revealing along the way their past grievances and present secrets. Meg, unhappy in her teaching job, is standoffish toward Nick’s romantic advances and sometimes treats him with positive disdain, nursing old wounds that will be explained in due course. Meanwhile Nick keeps taking calls from their slacker son, who recently moved out of their house with his wife and child, but now is looking to return, much to Meg’s distress. He’s also concealing the fact that he’s being forced to resign his position at a red-brick university because of a complaint by a female student about an off-the-cuff remark he made to her.
And yet the relationship has a strong element of affection as well as estrangement, as well as comic moments to balance the more serious ones. The strapped couple enjoy fine dining, but have to skip out on the bill. (They’ll eventually try to run out on their hotel bill, too.) In fact, it’s while they’re kissing on the street that they encounter Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), a gregarious old classmate of Nick’s who’s enjoyed the sort of success that’s eluded Burrows and invites them over to a soiree that he and his pretty young trophy wife Eve (Judith Davis) are throwing that evening.
That gathering serves as a critical moment for both Meg and Nick. They both have encounters that confront them with hard choices. She considers going off with a guest, a man who invites her out for a drink. And he bares his soul not only in a conversation with Michael (Olly Alexander), Morgan’s neglected son by his first marriage who’s visiting from America, but in a response to a laudatory dinner toast that Morgan offers to him. His confession of his weakness, professional failure and self-loathing shocks the other guests but ironically rekindles Meg’s feelings for him.
In less capable hands Hanif Kureishi’s subtle, sophisticated script, with its carefully-wrought balance between comedy, farce, restrained drama and powerful moments, could have been badly bungled. But here it’s played out to remarkable effect. Michell’s direction is both poised and limber, made all the more impressive by Nathalie Durand’s supple camerawork and Kristina Hetherington’s crisp editing, which gives the montages zest.
And the performances are superb. Duncan brings sternness to Meg without losing the affection that remains under the crusty exterior, but it’s Broadbent who really excels here. He’s an actor who’s never disappointed, even in inferior material, but in this case he has superior writing to work with, and he seizes upon it with obvious relish; it’s a great performance. But one shouldn’t overlook the genial pizzazz that Goldblum brings to the role of the loquacious Morgan, who evinces a honestly self-deprecatory good nature even as he rhapsodizes about the lovely young wife he knows will eventually tire of him and remains obstinately oblivious to the obvious strains in the Burrows family—nor the quietly moving turn by Anderson as his troubled son.
It’s appropriate that “Le Week-End” ends with an impromptu dance, for the entire film has been like a remarkable bit of cinematic terpsichore, covering the whole range of human emotion just as life—or marriage—does. And at the close it actually leaves you wanting more, because it’s created characters so rich and interesting—and so well played—that you want to enjoy their company even longer. That’s something you can’t say about most movies.