SpanishJulianne MooreColin FirthMatthew Goode
A Single Man
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford, David Scearce, Christopher Isherwood [novel]
Keywords: Oscar-nominated
Language: English, Spanish [one scene]
Country: USA
Actor: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena, Paulette Lamori, Ryan Simpkins, Ginnifer Goodwin, Teddy Sears, Paul Butler, Aaron Sanders, Aline Weber, Lee Pace, Adam Shapiro, Marlene Martinez, Nicole Steinwedell
Format: 99 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 16 May 2011
It's a detailed, sensitive portrait of a bereaved gay man. If you're looking for plot, go elsewhere.
Colin Firth plays a gay English professor in Los Angeles in 1962, whose boyfriend died in a car accident and hasn't been able to get over it. He decides to commit suicide. The movie follows him on that day, as he meets various people who talk to him and sometimes try to help him. That's the plot. It's not exactly an action film. However Colin Firth was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this film, which I think really does capture something unusual.
There are various elements to the portrait. One is obviously Firth himself, who's doing an excellent job in a ten ton role. He's got a movie camera right in his face from beginning to end. Admittedly this is the kind of emotionally repressed Englishman he seems to have made a career out of playing, but even so it's worth noticing the subtleties he brings to the role. Watch his metamorphosis, for instance. Early in the film he reminded me of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, with his aggressive spectacles, stiff-necked posture and a sense that this is a man who doesn't belong in the world around him. Later on though, when he's dancing with Julianne Moore, those same spectacles now make him look like Michael Caine. Eventually he ditches the glasses entirely and becomes yet another person.
Then there's the bereavement. I was talking afterwards with someone who said the film got that exactly right, the way the loss of a loved one can leave you drifting through the world as if you'd been unplugged from it. Furthermore this is 1962 and this was the love of two gay men, so Firth hasn't been able to mourn properly and so his loss has been eating away inside him all the more damagingly.
The most obvious thing to talk about though is the homosexuality. I can hardly imagine a gayer film. It's not that it's full of flaming queens like The Iron Ladies or Markova: Comfort Gay, because it isn't. It's quite the opposite, in fact. What it has instead might be far more challenging for certain straight audiences, in that it's forcing us to deal with more fundamental emotions. It's not about the sex. At one point Firth tries to define himself by saying he's had sex with women, but that the important thing is that he falls in love with men. His pain is crippling. We see flashbacks from before the accident. We see beautiful men and we understand in almost painful detail how Firth feels. In fact for these 99 minutes, to all intents and purposes, you will, at least by proxy, be gay.
The writer-director's also homosexual, obviously. I shouldn't think you're surprised by this, but even so this is clearly a very personal movie and it's wearing its sexual preference on its sleeve. It screams out from every scene, from the story, dialogue and shot selection. You know that thing that's erroneously called the Male Gaze, in which a heterosexual male director is clearly pointing his camera at things he likes looking at? This film has the Gay Male Gaze. I've been assured that if you're a straight woman, you'll find this film beautiful, almost like a painting. (Men's sexuality is more visual than women's.)
There are other significant stylistic points. (The director is one Tom Ford, also a famous fashion designer for Gucci. There's a lot of style here.) The 1962-ness is flawless and lovely in its clunky early sixties way, being both aesthetically satisfying and crucial for the story. It's a different world today, fifty years later. There's also extreme use of colour, in which Colin Firth will be shot in near-monochrome and yet something which excites his senses might burst into Technicolor. (I don't mean that literally, but as a shorthand for a super-saturated palette.) Thinking about it, it's perhaps a shame this wasn't set ten years earlier, when real Technicolor was still in use.
This is an uncompromising movie. It's dazzlingly clear about what it wants to express and it's triumphantly successful at doing so. If that wasn't what you wanted to see, tough. Go watch something else. Fortunately though it also manages not to be depressing, with for instance Firth's suicide preparations being delicately funny. I didn't adore this film, but I can see how other people might and personally I thought it was both interesting and impressive.