If you’re casting actors to play a couple who’ve been together for 30 years, it can’t hurt to go with people who’ve already played husband and wife. The new dramedy “Le Week-End,” about a longtime pair who try to recreate their honeymoon via a Parisian getaway, stars Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who already played Lord and Lady Longford in the 2006 English miniseries “Longford.” Not that their relationship on that show was anything like the one in “Le Week-End.”
“That wasn’t so much about the relationship,” Broadbent says from Lincolnshire, where the weather is actually nice. “But it was enough that we learned we got on and were on the same wavelength. We were pretty well cast. We didn’t have to make any big leaps.”
That’s good because in the film, their characters are not happily wed. Nick, his character, is a bit of a doormat — a once academic star who never amounted to much. His wife, Meg, has largely fallen out of love with him and rarely misses an opportunity to dress him down.
“It’s not a reflection of my marriage,” Broadbent says, with a warm laugh. (He’s been married to painter and former theater designer Anastasia Lewis since 1987.) But he points out that not all is bleak for them. They still get along, in pockets, enough that you’re not rooting for a split. “It was their shared humor and enjoyment of each other’s company that drew me to it.”
Still, it’s not too fuzzy. “It isn’t sentimental about the longstanding relationship. It’s a tricky thing, to keep going for 30 years. God knows how long it will go on after the film ends,” he says, chuckling.
The film is also brutally honest about Nick’s vocational failures. “I’ve known people like him,” Broadbent says. “He was charming in his teen years, in his early 20s. But his promise hasn’t been fulfilled, for whatever reason. He’s bright enough to be honest about it. She’s very honest as well, and while she laughs with him about it, she’s sometimes hurtful.
“I like that. They’re open in that way.”
The actual filming was the opposite of the bitterness that's often (though not always) onscreen. “The wife came over and we had a little apartment. We had a very light crew. We would film in a small restaurant, and all of us could fit in there and have a wonderful French lunch. The whole thing was a delight.”
Broadbent has worked with the English filmmaker Mike Leigh multiple times, including on “Life Is Sweet,” “Topsy-Turvy” — in which he played the first part of Gilbert and Sullivan — and “Another Year,” a more optimistic film about a long-term marriage. Leigh’s style involves creating the script along with the actors over a long period before filming even begins. “Six months is a long time to work before you can start filming and get a good script. It takes time to do research. You have to get over a certain laziness.”
That was not the case here, or with many of the films he did. “Le Week-End” was written by Hanif Kureishi, the novelist who has collaborated with Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) and this film’s director, Roger Michell (“The Mother,” “Venus”). Broadbent credits Kureishi with doing a lot of the grunt work on his character. “There’s a joy to having a script that’s done all the work for you, in a way. Obviously you bring something else to it beyond just reading the script. But he’s thought about the nuances of character, contradictions — so much of what I really like about the characters. The relationship is there on the page, and if it’s not the page it’s to be teased out.”
Broadbent has spent his career mixing it up between small pictures, big pictures and those made by iconoclasts like Leigh and Terry Gilliam. (Two of his first roles were in “Time Bandits” and “Brazil,” in which he played the plastic surgeon who treats Katherine Helmond’s face like it was silly putty.) He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as novelist Iris Murdoch’s husband in “Iris,” but he’s probably known — or at least most seen — as Horace Slughorn in two of the “Harry Potter” films. (He was also Bridget Jones' dad, and the emcee in "Moulin Rouge!")
When asked if he’s pestered by the millions upon millions of Potterheads around the world, he says, “No, not really. It’s never really intrusive. It’s usually a delight. It was probably a bit of a sea change in a way, in that many, many millions of people actually saw a film I was in.”
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