Never trying too hard to emulate Woody Allen, Danny DeVito, or Richard Linklater – all of whom have already made this exact kind of film – the British domestic drama Le Week-End delivers a bitter, and sometimes uncomfortably naturalistic look at an inexplicably enduring marriage on the rocks. Yet it’s the bitterness contained within the film’s two leading performances and director Roger Michell’s love of small, quiet moments over grandstanding arguments that make for great adult oriented entertainment.
The Burrows are leaving their Birmingham life behind for their anniversary, but they don’t exactly seem to be celebrating their thirty years together. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) have agreed to head to Paris for a weekend getaway, and Nick has gotten it in his head that they should recreate their honeymoon in hopes that it will rekindle a spark that seems to have been drowned out long ago.
Needless to say, nothing goes according to plan and the increasing rift between Nick and Meg’s personalities is beginning to show. The perceptive script from Hanif Kureishi lays out the problems quite wonderfully, doling out little bits of information over time to make both of them look equally boorish and sympathetic. The film starts off taking the side of Nick by showing Meg as a woman who can’t be pleased by anything and who seemingly resists happiness unless it’s created on her own terms. Nick is sympathetic here because there’s no reason to yet understand why she could despise him so much.
Then, after only spending about twenty minutes with Broadbent’s character, one begins to wonder how Meg could have spent thirty years with the guy, let alone twenty minutes. Nick is a smothering type who needs constant reassurance. Meg’s inability to be happy is that she no longer finds herself capable of being left alone, and the frustration is understandable when it turns out that every reaction to disappointment that Nick gives is an even more insidious passive-aggressive overreaction. His newfound status as a bit of a lap dog is in stark opposition to the fifteen years where he was hardly around and she had to raise their growing family almost on her own with absolutely no input. He worries about everything under the sun, and yet he never has a solution for anything, which leads to him trying way too hard to fix problems that he seemingly has no real idea how to fix.
The chemistry between Broadbent (who hasn’t had a leading role this great in years) and the always underrated Duncan is superb. Each character has their own specific quirks that a film like this needs to succeed. Duncan is great as a woman who chooses her battles very carefully, oscillating between anger and a chosen silence to avoid further damage to the relationship over small things like paying for hotel rooms and refusing her husband sex. Her frustrations are understandable and her anger so carefully realized. It’s a brilliant look at someone who has never found a comfortable middle ground with the person that she clearly loves or else she wouldn’t have stuck around this long.
Broadbent plays someone so inward that one might this he’s been bullied into becoming a paranoid who thinks his wife hates him. It’s this unspoken persecution complex that drives the character, especially in a lengthy scene where he meets up at a party with an American writer friend (a really wonderful Jeff Goldblum in the film’s only major supporting role). He doesn’t seem to handle the happiness of others well, constantly simmering and looking pained when others have good news for him, practically bursting with jealousy. It’s the same way he handles his own wife. It’s a delicate balance, and although Nick isn’t a particularly likable guy, there’s an affability about him that makes one hope he finds what he’s looking for.
Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) wisely gives his cast a lot of room to create a relationship that feels so lived in that it’s practically falling apart, and the way that he photographs Paris is put into interesting contrast. He makes the city look beautiful around these characters, but he stays so sharply focused on them that the rest of the world around them seems to drift away. There are gorgeous train rides, luxury suites with views of the Eifel Tower, 15th century houses made into trendy loft apartments, and quaint little restaurants, but they’re hard to notice because of how magnetic the failing marriage at the film’s core manages to be. It’s a beautiful city, but no place to save a failing marriage.