Saturday, January 9, 2010

Movie Review: A Single Man

Directed By: Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult

It's November 30th, 1962. Set in Los Angeles, the film tracks a day in the life of a British university professor struggling to return to a sense of normalcy after the sudden death of his lover eight months earlier. The audience follows George (Colin Firth) as he gives a lecture on Aldous Huxley to his students, interacts with his neighbours, bonds intellectually with a student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) and visits his longtime friend Charley (Julianne Moore), all the while thinking of Jim (Matthew Goode) and contemplating suicide.

Above all else, this film is a meditation on love and loss. Anyone who has lost someone close to them can emphasize with George's disconnection with his surroundings. What few can relate to is the manner in which George is forced to grieve for his lover: in private, lest someone discover he is a homosexual.

Because this is a Tom Ford film, one can expect plenty of beautiful men in beautiful suits, however, behind every perfectly manicured front lawn or well-cut suit or stylish living room furniture, lies hidden secrets and unhappiness. While aesthetically pleasing to behold, the characters are walking dead and masking their interior pain.

This is one of the few films that actually captures the "gay experience." Usually the focus is on a crisis of sexual identity and confusion (Brokeback Mountain) or being openly gay in a repressive society (Milk). A Single Man, on the other hand, is about love, lust and longing as a gay man. Despite being forced to keep his sexual orientation private, George notices beautiful men in public, desires physical and emotional comfort from men and yearns for an overall deeper connection with men. George knows who he is and what he wants, he just must carry on in private.

Invisibility as a theme comes up on occasion throughout the film. George lives in a glass house, completely vulnerable to prying eyes. He lived there with Jim, openly. However, his neighbours never said a word about their living arrangements, nor did anyone treat him any differently after Jim's death. If they were aware of George's homosexuality they never said it in public. Even in a glass house George and Jim were invisible. They didn't exist as a couple in the eyes of society. When George reluctantly goes skinny-dipping with Kenny late at night, Kenny points out that no will notice because they are invisible. Even when learning of Jim's death in a phone call from Jim's cousin, George is not invited to the funeral, despite the fact that he and Jim had been together for fifteen years. George was invisible to his lover's own family.

Colin Firth, known for being typecast as the droll yet charming Englishman in romantic comedies, gives his finest performance in A Single Man. He instills George with a sense of quiet grief, which lingers just below the surface, as though he could snap at any moment. His narration verbally illustrates the loss and isolation he feels by Jim's death, however, no words are actually needed. Firth manages to convey every minute of George's heartbreak in even the simplest of his daily tasks, whether he is observing his seemingly happy neighbours through a window while sitting on the toilet or discovering an intimate photo he once took of Jim. Firth's performance is not only one of the best of his career, but one of the best of 2009.

Julianne Moore, as George's British friend, Charley, is wonderful in a secondary role. Charley is aware that she is an aging, divorced woman with little contact with her children, yet she dresses and acts as though she were twenty years younger, living in happier times. She loves George and, despite the fact that she is aware that he's a "poof," she resents the fact that she couldn't have him all to herself. Charley and George are both aware of the fact that they will never be with their true loves again and their shared sadness is evident.The rest of the supporting players, specifically Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult, are well cast and give strong performances in smaller roles.

The film is visually stunning, once you get over the fact that Tom Ford has the tendency to make some scenes play more like a perfume ad than a film. The costumes and sets perfectly capture and contextualize the 1960s. The pace is leisurely, but always intriguing. It's a wonderful film which places its emphasis on human loss and suffering as seen through the eyes of one man.

Grade: A


  1. Wonderful piece on a wonderful film! I saw it last week and couldn't agree with you more about how amazing the whole movie is.

    ( I'm actually looking forward to reading the book...when I can get my hands on a copy)

    If you're interested, my review will be posted tomorrow and I'll also be talking about it on my podcast this Monday.

  2. Thanks! :)

    It's too bad it's only playing on two screens in Toronto, although the show I went to was fairly busy.

    I was thinking about reading the novel as well. It seems like the type of film that would have been quite loyal to the original source.

    I'll check out your review tomorrow!

  3. Fantastic review for a fantastic film!