Eye For Film >> Movies >> A Single Man (2009) Film Review
A Single Man
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
To lose someone with whom you’ve shared 16 years of your life is a devastating blow – made all the worse if you have to keep your grief a secret...
That’s the premise of Ford’s extremely accomplished screen debut, which gives Colin Firth - too often typecast as the comedy uptight English ass - a chance to demonstrate again what a top-notch actor he is.
He plays George, an English Literature professor at a minor college in the California of the Cuban missile crisis era. He’s been in a happy, stable relationship with Jim (Matthew Goode) for 16 years. But the film’s striking opening shot is of Jim lying dead after a car accident.
George is devastated – but despite the first burgeonings of the counter-culture movement, the society in which he moves still regards homosexuality as a dirty secret. The family don’t invite him to the funeral and, despite the length of the relationship, neighbours and colleagues never allude to it – with the exception of his closest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a fellow Brit expat once a darling of the London scene but now spending divorce settlement money on a lifestyle of gin, pink cigarettes and beauty treatments.
Naturally a reserved and private man, George retreats even further into himself after the tragedy – the film plays out over the course of one day, in which he uses pills and obsessive routine to get by, while deciding, in a similarly methodical manner, whether or not he’s even going to go on living.
The encounters he has during the day, notably with the beautiful but distinctly strange daughter of his uptight neighbours and a hero-worshipping student (Nicholas Hoult), form the crux of the movie and find him questioning whether it’s still possible to find beauty and happiness in the world – or whether the constant memories of the love he’s lost will prove too much...
It could be argued that Firth’s role here is just a more complex and tragic version of the Uptight Brit template – and it’s hard not to avoid the uncharitable thought that someone saw the final scenes of Mamma Mia! and thought: "Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Colin did that again - only, like, seriously?"
But such thoughts quickly vanish as Firth produces a subtle and deeply moving performance. He combines the poignant world-weariness of a man destined to conceal his true nature with a gentle, sly humour, a questing, questioning intelligence and an unforced, stylish charisma. It’s easy to see why he inspires such devotion in Charley and borderline obsession in the dreamy, beatnik student.
Scenes where he sits alone in the kitchen of his sumptuous, empty house, quietly falling apart as he hears the news of Jim’s death or dissects the root causes of America’s Cold War paranoia are a masterclass in screen acting, conveying as much by expression and movement as words. Anyone who remembers his early performances in Tumbledown or A Month In The Country can look forward to a welcome reminder of how good he can be – the Venice Film Festival judges obviously agreed, awarding him the Volpi Cup for best actor. However, fans of the Darcy-era Colin can be reassured there are a few shirt-off moments, too, and, I have to say, they ARE artistically valid.
Moore’s Charley is a somewhat more clichéd role – a fading beauty straight out of a Dusty Springfield torch song – but she does have enormous fun with it and there’s a genuine sense of the bond between her and George, two people growing old alone in a country that, for all its attractions, still isn’t home. As the two men in his life, Hoult and Goode are equally impressive – I confess to not recognising them, or even realising they weren’t American, until the end credits; not bad given Hoult’s ubiquity in Skins over the last few years or Goode’s high-profile appearance as Ozymandias in Watchmen – though he did essay a not dissimilar character in the recent version of Brideshead.
Ford (a fashion designer best known for rejuvenating Gucci in the 1990s) demonstrates a natural visual flair and an obvious love for 60s trappings and California skies. More impressively, as co-writer, he helps craft believable dialogue and meditations on life, loss and love that rarely sound flowery or contrived. It helps to have great source material, of course (the film is based on a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, hailed as a milestone in the modern gay liberation movement) but Ford and Scearce are to be congratulated on capturing the essence of a sometimes elusive writer.
Occasionally Ford’s desire to try mixing everything on the director’s palette results in some awkward shifts of tone and a loss of narrative focus. It could also be argued that after Revolutionary Road and Mad Men, the ‘dark heart of the Kennedy era’ genre is becoming something of a cliché – surely there were some people in early Sixties America who didn’t live in pristine, impeccably furnished homes and live on fags and martinis?
But these are minor quibbles – some images (the opening car crash; a little girl proferring a jar containing a scorpion in the middle of a suburban bank’s reception area; George struggling to overcome his grief enough to simply get up and get dressed in the morning) are truly striking and the whole thing has a combination of technical accomplishment, genuine heart and subversive intelligence that recalls the great chronicler of post-war Americana Douglas Sirk; as praise goes, I can’t give much better.Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2009