It's easy to see the lovingly packaged Criterion Collection—with its critic-penned booklets full of film stills and its discs' director-approved transfers and special features—as a high-standard archive of classics. So, what to make of Criterion stamping its seal of “important” on Weekend—not the 1967 Godard film (#635) but the 2011 romance (#622)?
Criterion was adding “contemporary” films from the start, when its present-day wisdom was more debatable—in its fledgling '80s, its first three additions (to laserdisc) from that decade were #19 Blade Runner (sure), #40 The Princess Bride (iffy), and #75 Ghostbusters (wha?!?). ('90s boners/brand-dilutions include The Prince of Tides, Chasing Amy and Armageddon; as a 2012 April Fool's prank, Criterion pretended to be releasing Kindergarten Cop.)
But even without the interviews, audition tapes and two of editor-writer-director Andrew Haigh's shorts, Weekend would be important—for its esthetic and political approach to a weekend romance. It's a romance that finds intimacy in intense conversation but also a very British film about private and public spaces. As we watch Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen) hook up and reel each other back in over the course of three days, the video-confessional meets the arthouse-hidden. Cullen plays Russell as a 20something realizing, reluctantly, just how much he's falling for Glen; New's Glen tries to use irony and conversation to tread water at a safe distance from a relationship's deep end.
Glen records Russell recalling their meeting, Russell reveals his private log of sexual encounters to Glen, Russell texts Glen when he's overcome with the urge to see him again, a CCTV camera outside Russell's building whirs around, filming, a train station's surveillance recording is announced over the PA, and there's always the threat, when either man's walking about in Nottingham, that he'll be jeered at. At the film's climax, the camera zooms in, slowly, through a chain-link fence, until its barrier blurs away and we're there with Glen and Russell—everyone and everything else is unimportant for that fleeting moment.
Haigh frames the relationship with two recurring images—Russell in the bath, Glen walking down the path away from the building—that mark time's passing. Hand-held close-ups of the two talking alternate with medium shots of Russell going through quiet surges of emotion alternate with long shots of the city's cool, indifferent public spaces. Glen, an artist, is more confrontational—noting how much straight culture shoves its sexuality down people's throats—while Russell's more withdrawn, admitting that he feels the sensation of “indigestion” when he goes out; we see why, what with the UK's bragging, slagging, hetero “lad” culture seething from pubs, clubs, public transit, and even his work lunchroom.
It's a potent mix of the sensually intimate and the politically confrontational. Haigh even throws a few sly darts at anyone who'd pigeonhole this film when he has Glen discussing his art project (concerning conversations about gay sex) and noting that no straights would show up, while gays would just pop in for voyeuristic thrills. And Glen cracks of the film's climax that this is “our Notting Hill moment,” except the audience would “either clap or throw us under the train.” But maybe Criterion's embrace of Haigh's film has expanded the audience for Weekend just that little bit, so it can go beyond the queer-fest or arthouse offering to be seen for what it is—a contemporary classic about the aching weekend romance between two Englishmen.