With his 2011 feature Weekend, director Andrew Haigh achieves something unique – he’s created a sensitive, unforced romantic drama about life in the gay community that is free of the salacious excess (I’m looking at you two, William Friedkin and Cruising) or indie quirks (Dean Howell’s near-unwatchable Nine Lives) often found in contemporary queer cinema.  In fact, the film’s subtlety and tact recalls the great Brokeback Mountain and Longtime Companion; the three share the same compassion, the same keen eye for character detail.

For the most part, Haigh structures Weekend as a two-hander between his leads, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), two men living in Nottingham, England.  They meet at a club, they spend the night together, and then…something happens.  It’s not true love – not necessarily – but Russell and Glen definitely make a connection that neither person expects, and the rest of the film unfolds as a series of long, charged conversations.

I was reminded of Richard Linklater’s wonderful romantic diptych, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; like Linklater, Haigh has a gift for making conversational bobbing-and-weaving thrilling and mysterious.  Russell and Glen approach one another using very different styles.  Russell is shyer, guarded – while he isn’t closeted, he plays his sexual orientation pretty close to the vest.  As we see in Weekend‘s opening minutes, the majority of his closest friends are straight, and Russell is more than content to engage them on their own terms.  On the other side of the spectrum, however, you have Tom, and he’s more outgoing – a free-spirited artist, no less.  His frankness proves essential to drawing out Russell.

In other hands, this could be tired material; a lesser filmmaker might simplify the dynamic between the two men into contrasting stereotypes (the reticent closet case and the out-and-about queen, say), but Cullen and New, working from Haigh’s naturalistic script, keep their characters grounded and true.  Their chemistry is palpable, and it isn’t just romantic – they let you see the visceral effect each man has in the other one’s life.  Glen makes Russell less withdrawn, while Russell’s patience and introspection has a calming influence on Glen.  As such, their performances work on two levels: as an approximation of different gay lifestyles in modern society, and as a representation of two people – gay or straight – trying to negotiate around the pitfalls of burgeoning intimacy.

There’s another element at work here.  Haigh gives his movie, in essence, the equivalent of the ticking-bomb countdown; Glen reveals to Russell that he’s scheduled to leave England for America in only a few days.  This trope lifts Weekend out from the realm of social realism and into something more operatic – it’s the same conceit behind such magical, sad fairy tales as Brief Encounter or The Bridges of Madison County.  Yet we accept the convention because of the pulse it adds.  Every interaction that Russell and Glen have feels more vital because we can see an expiration date looming in the background.

Haigh has struck a unique balance, of Old Hollywood and New Grit, and it is responsible for the curious, lovely chord that Weekend sounds.  We go into the film expecting to watch two gay men have a one-night stand, and we end up witnessing something far wiser about human nature.  The film is as messy – and as universal – as life itself.

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents the film is a good digital transfer; Haigh and cinematographer Ula Pontikos shot Weekend on DV, which comes with some unavoidable print issues, but on the whole, the feature looks clean and sharp.  The disc also has a subdued but effective 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Bonus supplements are – as per usual for Criterion – extensive and informative.  The distributor has provided three behind-the-scenes featurettes: “Andrew Haigh’s Weekend,” “The Sex Scenes,” and “Quinnford + Scout,” a short piece on the look of the film.  There are also audition tapes for Cullen and New, as well as raw footage that New took throughout the production schedule.  Best of all are two additional short features from Haigh – “Cahuenga Blvd.” and “Five Miles Out.”  Rounding out the Blu-ray are the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay from critic Dennis Lim.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that Weekend is a “gay” movie.  This is a perceptive and moving drama about adults trying to find and maintain love amidst the vagaries of contemporary society; their sexual orientations are important, insomuch as sex matters to every romantic relationship between two people.  Highly recommended.

Weekend is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: This WEEKEND Takes an Honest Look at Young Love