[9 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While many still consider it one of the most progressive decades in US history, the ‘60s still has its horrific social blemishes to bear. Most come in area of civil rights and the abuses and marginalization of minorities that took marches, riots, and iconic assassinations to finally sink in among the Establishment. But while African Americans saw their cause come to the fore, other groups, such as homosexuals, continued to be castigated and pointed out for punishment.
It is within this socially unacceptable backdrop that designer turned director Tom Ford stages his queer character study, A Single Man. Featuring a stellar performance by Colin Firth and a stylized approach that highlights the subtext in each scene, we wind up with something as provocative as it is political, a melancholy motion picture that illustrates America’s lack of tolerance as well as its continued ignorance of alternative lifestyles.
Firth is early ‘60s college professor George, a gay man living a lie. After the death of his longtime companion, he decides to end his own life. We follow him on his final day, from the precise preparations he makes for his belongings and legal arrangements, to the normal day to day façade of career and community. Along the way, George reconnects with an old flame, drunken neighbor (and one time gal pal) Charley. They reminiscence about their days in England, their quickie marriage, and the devastating effects of Jim’s untimely passing. As he prepares to kill himself, George also reflects on his past. He also flirts with a sexy student who may have more than just a passing interest in this suddenly single man.
For someone who has never made a movie before, Ford sure understands the magic of cinema. Much of A Single Man gets by on slow motion shots of Kennedy era citizens, manicured lawns hiding hidden truths and prejudices. At other instances, the first time filmmaker indulges in visionary swaths of purposeful panache. When George recalls a particularly perfect day in the sun with his boyfriend Jim, the entire sequence is shot like a Calvin Klein ad, contrast heavy black and white making the whole situation startling unreal. Similarly, when a destitute Spanish hustler tries to pick up our hero outside a liquor store, their tender conversation plays out in front of a huge poster for the Hitchcock classic Psycho.
All attempted symbolism aside, Ford shows a Coen Brothers level of fascination with the period. Students smoke in class, banks seem more like country clubs than places of financial business. George’s home is reminiscent of a fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright dreamscape, its amazing amount of glass adding the final proto-proverbial touch. Even during the occasional flashbacks, Ford finds the right tone and visual template. We learn that our lead first met Jim in a seaside bar after the war. Even without the tri-colored jingoistic patriotism, A Single Man sizes up the recent Allies victory in excellent optical shorthand. Similarly, every scene with Juliann Moore’s liquored up lady Charley is like a snapshot of a soon to be cracked Carnaby Street façade.
The acting matches Ford’s meticulous nature. Firth is nothing but fine as George, riding an older man’s mannerism toward a two pronged path - self-destruction or a return to a young man’s fancy. While the homosexual element is never overplayed (there’s no bronco bucking love scene here), we definitely feel the tenderness, and the tenuous vulnerability, that comes from the character’s love for Jim. As the significant other, Matthew Goode is more representation than actual human being. He seems perfect beyond words, incapable of doing much more than acquiescing to George’s every need. Sure, this may be the veil of memory (or grief) covering up the facts, but the idealized nature of their relationship give Firth’s laborious death preparations that much more meaning.
The only other main characters carry their own issues into the frequently jagged narrative. Moore, who looks like a painted and potted socialite most of the time, never gets beyond the booze with Charley. She’s like the diva drunk at the end of the bar - interesting to look at, almost unbearable to listen to once she starts unleashing her demons. As the pretty boy kid who comes between George and his planned suicide, Nicholas Hoult presents his own problems. Wearing his obvious lust and bi-curiosity on his tanned twink arms, he’s never once subtle about what he wants. As a matter of fact, we continuously question Firth’s awareness since this basic blond California himbo virtually undresses him with his eyes every time they meet.
And then there is the ending. Christopher Isherwood’s novel was a major league bombshell in 1964. At that time, readers just weren’t ready to accept a gay man finding happiness. Instead, the book beats George to the punch, delivering a dirty pool denouement that couldn’t be more unsatisfactory. All throughout the movie, Ford keeps reminding us of the horrors that lay just beyond our hero’s sheltered home. Prejudice is everywhere, even for those without full knowledge of George’s proclivities. Embracing this manner of ending, not unlike the gut punch of American Beauty, belies a mindset unwilling to embrace total human happiness and freedom. One assumes that Isherwood’s version plays better on the page, since it doesn’t have the direct visual impact of how Ford stages the events.
Perhaps that’s why A Single Man ends up feeling slightly underwhelming. Instead of fully opening our eyes to the social stigmas and pains of early ‘60s sexual segregation, we get brilliant visual flourishes followed by lots of inference and innuendo. George is not an open or “out” man, and as a result, his problems are mostly internal and insular. Firth and Ford do their best to make them evident, but it’s not enough to fully draw us in. Perhaps if Moore had been more of an asset and less of a star-turn summing up of every drunken ‘broad’ cinematic stereotype. Maybe if Hoult wasn’t so patently hot to trot, each line reading a reactive double entendre. Whatever the reason, there is a lot of artistic excellence expended here for what ends up being a rather light and ethereal effort. We except more from a movie that tries, indirectly, to deal with anti-gay sentiments and one person’s painful longing. A Single Man should have been stellar. Instead, it’s just oddly engaging without being emotionally immersive.