Movie Review – A Single Man (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
I haven’t been able to decide exactly what I think of A Single Man. It’s not often I get to this point- having given it quite a bit of thought, and about to write a review- and still feel uncertain about a movie. This time I’m working through my thoughts on the film as I write.
It’s not that I’m trying to puzzle out the story or characters; A Single Man isn’t convoluted or ambiguous. The setting is Los Angeles, 1962. The story is a day in the life of George (Colin Firth), a gay middle-aged literature professor grieving for his lover of 16 years, who was killed in a one-car accident eight months before. As the day begins George expects it to be his last: he intends to kill himself that night. He divides his day between his regular routine and wrapping up his affairs.
The first includes chatting casually with his housekeeper and colleagues, meeting his classes, and talking with his longtime best friend and sole confidante Charley (Julianne Moore), a fellow English expatriate he’s known since their young and wild days in London. The latter is prosaic if morbid items like cleaning out his office and safe deposit box, writing farewell letters, and laying out the suit he wants to be buried in. These scenes are interspersed with flashbacks to his life with Jim (Matthew Goode) and, in the poignant near-opening scene, the stranger’s telephone call that informed him Jim was dead and about to be buried in a service closed to non-family like himself.
My trouble with the film stems from the behind-the-camera work. The visual filmmaking- direction by first-time director Tom Ford (who also wrote the screenplay adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood), cinematography, editing- and use of music are self-consciously Artistic with a capital A. The most prominent technique is a fading in and out of color. George’s baseline here and now existence has had the color stripped out such that it resembles a faded, 1960s vintage color snapshot. When someone punctures the monotony of his existence, the world reverts to color. Flashbacks are also in color with Jim bathed in bright, warm light.
This isn’t style for its own sake; it can’t be dismissed that easily. The varied coloration, like the prominent overlay of emotions-laden classical and opera music, is plainly designed to convey George’s emotions and draw out the audience’s. I considered the possibility that the intrusive visuals and music backfired in my case, actually breaking my sympathetic emotional rapport with George (brilliantly acted by Firth). I’m not sure; I’ve often enjoyed highly stylized films. I also don’t discount the possibility that someone more in sync with Ford would be more deeply moved by the film precisely because of the aggressively significant filmmaking.
I suspect the deeper issue is that the filmmaking created an expectation the film would be daring- or unusual, or penetrating, or profound- when in fact it’s really very conventional. The best illustration of this point is George’s “maybe life is worth living after all” in-living-color encounters: with the charming, innocent young girl from the family next door; with a handsome young man from Madrid who obliquely propositions him against the backdrop of a stunning sunset (the hustler: “The color is because of the smog, you know. Sometimes terrible things have their own kind of beauty.”); dancing and laughing with Charley. The most significant of these encounters is a series of progressively longer and more intimate conversations with a fresh-faced, sharp-witted young man (Nicholas Hoult) enamored of his intellectually sophisticated professor.
By and large these are nice conventions and perhaps it’s unfair to demand something else or more from the film, but I know I wish it hadn’t built to an O. Henry ending.
2 1/2 stars
Much of A Single Man‘s trailer was taken up with review quotes extolling the Oscar-worthiness of the performances, a salvo in this year’s nominations battle. A brilliant-performance-in-a-small-film campaign that succeeded was the one that got a Best Actor nod for Peter O’Toole in 2006 for Venus.