There’s a scene early in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend in which Russell (Tom Cullen), a handsome, semi-closeted gay man, patrols the local indoor swimming pool where he works. He plods around the pool perimeter and then looks on pensively from the lifeguard’s chair while a younger guy playfully offers a towel to another guy, perhaps his boyfriend. Then there’s a long shot of Russell keeping watch taken from the other end of the pool – arms folded, in the centre of the frame, standing under a sign that says ‘DEEP END’. Just after this we watch his bored, impassive face while he overhears a workmate in the midst of a staffroom brag about how many fingers he can get inside his girlfriend.
The scene reiterates what we already know about Russell: he’s a brooder, he feels like an outsider and he treads an ambivalent line when it comes to the public management of his sexuality; and, after spending the previous night with Glen (Chris New) – a caustic but magnetic art student whose current project involves taping his conquests talking about their night together – he’s in the emotional deep end. Shit is going to float to the surface.
Weekend is a two-hander with a superbly simple narrative about the passionate but short-lived hook up between these two men. It’s an exercise familiar from a lot of other low-budget cinema: the two-people-talking-and-fucking-in-an-apartment movie. Comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and it’s a valid correlation. Weekend is like Before Sunrise but with more drugs, facial hair, and gritty hand-held camera shots of council estate apartments and restless youth, all of which feel surprisingly authentic and refreshingly un-self-conscious.
This queer brief encounter starts in a trashy gay nightclub in Nottingham on a Friday night and unfolds in real-time increments over the course of the film’s eponymous weekend. Russell is affable but reticent; Glen is rascally and charismatic, but simmering very close to his surface is a vitriol that seems at any moment like it might plunge from droll banter to brittle, aggressive browbeating. Russell has straight friends; Glen has opinions. Glen’s art project is a means for him to publicise and politicise his erotic experiences, whereas Russell, who keeps a more modest, private sex journal on his laptop, seems content to keep these intimate encounters to himself. Initially nervous about talking into Glen’s tape recorder, Russell opens up as the weekend unfolds and the couple are confronted with a stubborn rationale for revealing themselves to one other.
The set-up may sound clichéd, but this weekend-long romance between the idealistic brooder and the passionate sceptic is a textured exploration of its characters’ sexual and political concerns. A credible sense of the emerging amour between Russell and Glen emerges from a quiet accumulation of small, empathic gestures and sparky verbal back-and-forth. Haigh solicits impassioned but brilliantly understated performances from Cullen and New and their performance together adds up to a rather emphatic argument for the verity of ‘onscreen chemistry’. It helps that Haigh and his cinematographer, Ula Pontikos, capture a lot of everyday beauty, including Russell’s thrift-store furnishings and the fetching, bewhiskered male leads. They have also produced one of the hottest gay sex scenes since Shortbus, though with a lot less fanfare and full-frontal fuss.
The Brits are good at this type of lo-fi, script-oriented cinema, and Weekend is a top-notch exemplar of the form. One interviewer recently called Haigh ‘the Ken Loach of gay cinema’ and there is evidence here of Loach’s verité naturalism and his interest in the everyday intersection of the personal and the political. The staffroom moment is a textbook example: it’s a glimpse of Russell’s dull, alienating life outside of the safe, intimate space of his flat. The yearning to keep returning to the space for talking and sex is the simple, endlessly renewable motive that animates these characters.
Weekend’s director, distributors and critics keep neurotically swearing that the film can be embraced by gay and straight audiences alike. Of course, this is true, but it’s also an anxious platitude used to market a small-budget, gay-themed movie to a broader audience, as if straight filmgoers were so intimidated or stupid they needed to be reminded that a gay love story is still a love story and might nevertheless be pleasurable for them to watch (cf. Brokeback Mountain).
The truth: this is a gay issues movie. Russell’s confessions, Glen’s diatribes, and the couple’s arguments and eventual tendernesses provide a dramatic scaffolding for the airing of key issues in contemporary queer life. Glen, for example, is staunchly anti-monogamy and gets incensed by the polite, neo-liberal status quo that the pro-gay marriage lobby is clamouring for, and the couple debate this matter well beyond their fifth or sixth line of speed. Weekend also dramatises the little ways in which queers have to perform – or may avoid performing – miniature coming-outs in everyday life. Russell is only happy with himself when he’s at home; in the street, he feels exposed and uneasy, a feeling he says is like indigestion. The film is particularly good at illustrating this contrast between the safety and intimacy of his flat, and the awkwardness and latent menace of the external world.
‘Low-budget, independent gay-issues film’ sounds dour and niche and unbelievably boring, but rather than weighing the drama down or diminishing the effectiveness of its exploration of character, Weekend’s political freight enlivens the stakes of this short-lived relationship, which is exactly what good, politicised drama should do.
Dion Kagan lectures in sexuality, screen and cultural studies at Melbourne University.