Friday, February 26, 2010

A Singular Single Man

A Single Man (U.S., 2009) directed by Tom Ford, 101 minutes

Colin Firth was nominated for "Best Actor in a Leading Role".

Perhaps you recognize Tom Ford as the former head designer for Gucci or perhaps as the guest editor of a particularly heinous issue of Vanity Fair in February 2006 just prior to the Oscars.

Ford seemed to have a particularly retro images of sexuality to present in that issue: a plethora of nude and semi-nude females and boring 1980s s&m iconography. He succeeded in being both boring and insulting to women at the same time.
Not to mention he managed to repulse the actress Rachel McAdams who fled the photo shoot rather than appear nude on its cover with Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson.

So it is with mild surprise that I report that A Single Man is a film sensitively conceived and delivered. Described as homoerotic, that seemed an odd designation for me. Because it is more about love and genuine passion than eroticism.

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a 52 year old British college professor living in L.A. who struggles emotionally after the death of his longtime partner Jim (played with a convincing American accent by the British actor Matthew Goode) in the early 1960s. He appears lonely and unfulfilled with only his closest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a fading, philandering beauty with whom he once had an brief affair, to comfort him.

The most affecting moments are George’s reactions to those things that remind him of Jim or of the beauty of life: a glimpse of a small dog which resembles one that they owned together and which disappeared with Jim’s death; George’s clandestine observation of the 50s perfect family next door which seems to be struggling with its own issues; George's clandestine observation of a beautiful student in one of his literature classes; the prettily made up eye of a modishly attired young woman at the university.

George lives in a sort of pristine, gorgeously appointed prison in his home which once provided a happy, romantic refuge but now houses only memories of his past happiness with Jim. But George has a plan. As methodical and careful as he has been in life he plans to be in death and he plots to end his life by the end of a certain day: the perfect outfit to be found in, detailed notes to be followed after his death,
rehearsing how he will be found in his bed upon completion of the dreaded task. He goes about it with a grim precision.

But George is sidetracked by an attractive and persistent student who appears to have fallen in love with him. Perhaps the message is not new here but it is still emotionally very effective. It reminded me of a Fellini character, the older man who is jaded and cynical, but becomes reinvigorated by youth and beauty (such as the character of Marcello and the pretty young waitress in the final scene of La Dolce Vita). Here, that ideal is represented by one of George’s students Kenny (Nicholas Hoult).

Frankly, I was tiring of Firth's bumbling British heartthrob routine which represented a complete reversal from the icily sexy Darcy of the Pride and Prejudice TV serial where Firth shot to fame in 1995.

Perhaps the pressure to maintain this sexy image was too much or too boring for Firth for we began to see him in semi-mediocre roles where he seemed half-heartedly engaged in the film and the process of acting: a less dashing stand-in for Darcy named Mark Darcy in
Bridget Jones' Diary (2001); an uptight, aristocratic father with political ambitions in What a Girl Wants (2003); the hapless, lonely writer in Love Actually (2003); a widowed father of many in Nanny McPhee (2005); a bumbling divorcee in Then She Found Me (2007); a closeted homosexual in Mamma Mia (2008). All very disappointingly un-Darcy like and perhaps that was the point.

But here George Falconer is dry, cerebral, cold, withholding and unhappy. It doesn't make for a pleasant human being but it makes for a more complex, emotionally engaging character on film. And it is unclear what happens to George in the end which is my favourite kind of ending.

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