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Film Review: Beginners * * *

The sombre, wistful, wryly comic tone of Mike Mills' Beginners suggests it's based on personal experience.

It is -- Mills was apparently inspired by memories of his own father, who announced at the grand old age of 75 that he was gay.

Beginners unfolds retrospectively, as Oliver (Ewan McGregor) sorts through his father Hal's possessions in the aftermath of his death. Chief among these is Cosmo, a bright-eyed Jack Russell who was the apple of Hal's eye.

Oliver talks to Cosmo as though he were a person, and sometimes Cosmo replies in pithy, insightful subtitles.

As Oliver tries to recover from his father's death, Cosmo is his constant companion, and in many ways he's the star of this show.

Oliver has always been a commitment-phobe and fairly unhappy in love, perhaps as a result of his parents' relationship, which was distant rather than actively unhappy.

He finds out why when Hal (Christopher Plummer) takes him aside on his 75th birthday and announces that he is and always has been gay.

This, as you'd imagine, is a lot for Oliver to take in, not because he's homophobic in any way, but because of the pall it casts on his entire childhood.

As he struggles to digest this sizeable piece of gristle, he meets a beautiful and elusive French girl at a party and finds himself falling in love.

Anna (Melanie Laurent) is an itinerant actress who seems to have commitment issues of her own: she's on the run from a demanding, obsessive father, and gradually she and Oliver begin to realise they've a lot in common.

But just as they're growing close, Hal returns like Banquo's ghost to throw a spanner in the works.

Beginners has a kind of gentleness and softness of tone that makes you want it to work. It almost does: Plummer's twinkling presence brings Hal nicely to life, and you admire the huge courage his character's public declaration must have entailed.

McGregor is a subtle and resourceful actor, and his recessive, wounded Oliver holds the film together.

But the beautiful Laurent's character is a bit of cypher, and Hal's impact is diminished by the fact that we only ever see him in half-remembered snatches.

And, in fact, Beginners' non-linear structure diminishes its impact overall.

It's Cosmo the dog who gets all the best lines, especially when he urges Oliver to pull himself together and commit to this girl before she gets away.

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