Andrew Haigh’s 2009 film ‘Greek Pete’ wasn’t the sort of directing debut you’d automatically expect from someone whose CV largely comprised editing work on studio pictures such as ‘Shanghai Knights’ and ‘Hannibal Rising’. Its story of contemporary London rent boys – their charm and sex lives, their fraught relationships, their attempts to make it big – fell somewhere between documentary and drama, drawing on reality without wholly forsaking the tools of fiction.
With ‘Weekend’, Haigh builds tremendously on his debut’s intriguing if frustrating promise. His new film is an engaging and moving romance with its head screwed on and, like its predecessor, a film that mines digital video’s peculiar tendency to blur lines between performative registers; the characters in ‘Weekend’ might not acknowledge the camera as those in ‘Greek Pete’ did, but they do probe the idea of the self as an act of performance.
The story is set in a mid-sized town, unnamed in the film, and takes place over a 48-hour period. Easygoing, open-hearted lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) meets outspoken, sharp-tongued Glen (Chris New), an aspiring artist, at a club on a Friday night. Over the following couple of days, they hang out, talk, have sex, eat, party and possibly fall in love. More or less a two-hander shot in chronological sequence, the result is an elegant and affecting miniature, the slow-burning intensity of its central relationship expressed through potent performances and marshalled through smart framing and lean editing. The chemistry between Cullen and New is made credible not only through intimacy and humour but also curiosity and frustration. Haigh’s filmmaking, meanwhile, demonstrates an editor’s sense of economy and pace but also faith in long takes and moments of quiet.
For all its humour, this is not exactly meet-cute territory: Russell and Glen spend as much time mulling normative behaviour and social conventions as making goo-goo eyes. Serious without being solemn, their encounter prompts questions about the pay-off between gay rights and queer questioning – broadly, assimilation and its discontents. There’s a shrewd sense here of the personal and intellectual challenges facing a generation that grew up after Section 28 – perhaps after ‘Queer as Folk’ – with basic battles for legal recognition won but more insidious forms of alienation very much alive. But the film is of more than niche appeal; sexy, provocative, engrossing and occasionally ornery, it should appeal to anyone whose curiosity about someone new has provoked them to question their own identity.