The vast majority of LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender) fiction that receives attention in the mainstream makes the homosexuality of its protagonists the defining characteristic of the piece. Rather than simply presenting two homosexuals in love and letting their love story speak for itself, LBGT movies will often beat you over the head with the fact that they are gay and the myriad ways in which society keeps them down. I’m not saying this is bad, since the rights of the LBGT community are the civil rights battleground of modern society, much as African American rights were in the 1960’s. However, as a fan of LBGT fiction, I’ve always yearned for a film that is simply content to let the love story or life crises of its heroes be more central to the film than their sexual identity. Along comes fashion designer Tom Ford and his beautiful but tragic A Single Man to satisfy this need with one of the most haunting and intimate films of the 2000’s.
Chronicling a day in the life of a gay English professor in the 1960’s, George Falconer (Colin Firth), 2009’s A Single Man is a tender and powerful treatise on lost love. A year before the film begins, George lost his lover Jim (Matthew Goode, Watchmen) in a car accident and life has been too painful to bear since. The film is focused (along with a healthy number of flashbacks to George and Jim’s life together before the accident) on the day in which George has decided to commit suicide and end his pain once and for all. A small and personal film, the plot action of the film is nothing more than George teaching his last classes (and befriending a student with a secret of his own), spending one last evening with his only remaining friend Charly (Julianne Moore), and returning to the bar where he met Jim for one last drink. Yet, beneath such simple plotting, a story of haunting pain and tragedy unfurls with one of the most raw and moving love stories of the decade.
Colin Firth’s turn as the grief-stricken professor is nearly peerless. With only Daniel Day Lewis standing above him, Colin Firth’s performance in A Single Man is simply one of the best performances of the 2000’s. While I often question the casting of straight actors in significant gay roles (simply because I’m always reminded of their actual heterosexuality and it distracts from the performance), Colin Firth completely avoids that pit fall and simply transforms himself into the role of George. At no point in the film is it possible to think of George as anything other than George. Firth finds that mythical sweet spot for successful actors by making the audience forget it is him on screen and not his character. There is so much subtlety and nuance to every second of his performance, yet he still delivers one of the most painfully realistic portrayals of depression and heart break that I’ve ever seen. Rather than depending on the defining character tics (such as his stutter in The King’s Speech) or explosive emotional displays (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull), Firth builds his performance around a deeply contained hurt, and anyone who has ever felt that way knows exactly how effective Firth is in this role. His performance is simply flawless.
Tom Ford’s history as a fashion designer is apparent in every meticulously shot and gorgeously arranged frame of this film. Ford takes the notion of film as a visual medium and explores it to its most beautiful depths. There is hardly a wasted detail in any shot and Ford’s camera lovingly lingers on every suit, every dress, and every perfect specimen of the human form. The actor cast to play Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), the student that befriends George, seems cast straight out of a Fellini picture with his astonishing good looks and sheer aesthetic appeal. The film revels in its period details as the very best of 1960’s culture and fashion are paraded in front of the camera in a never-ending display of haute couture. While some may argue that this is style that robs from the substance of the film, that couldn’t be further from the proof as the film is completely saturated with a tragically substantive love story and Ford simply chose to layer on this beautiful aesthetic tour-de-force which only amplifies the tragedy of the main story through the contrast of beauty and depression.
One of the mast inspired choices that Tom Ford made in the composition of the film was in the clever use of color schemes in the shots. Much of the film is shot in a drab and washed out color pallette to represent the anguish and pain which George feels. However, in shots which occur during the flashbacks with Jim or those moments in the present where he is finding some small happiness, the shot is suddenly saturated in bright vibrant colors which reflect George’s happier mental state. When I first saw the movie a year and a half ago, I thought there was something wrong with my DVD when this started happening, but then I figured it out, and it just worked so well for me. It works so well with the stream-of-conscious feel of the film by placing the audience even further into the mindset of its tragic hero. It really was simply one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed for this blog, and the only film with better cinematography from 2009 was The Road.
The only reason that this movie isn’t getting a perfect score is for its extremely outrageous use of the notion of “Chekhov’s Gun”, a narrative conceit that a small detail introduced early in a story is expected to pay-off later. A shocking twist is thrown in at the film’s end for sheer dramatic effect, but I think it ultimately derails much of the fim’s haunting and intimate beauty, since it seemingly comes out of nowhere and only my second viewing revealed its introduction earlier in the plot, during a throw-away line. Other than that, I am willing to say that the only gay-themed film that I would call superior to A Single Man is Fellini’s Satyricon. This film is so intense and intimately personal that it can be painful to watch, but it is that same realism and intensity which makes it such a powerful film. While some have been turned off by how deliberately and artistically arranged Ford has made this film, to me, it only adds another, contrasting layer of beauty to one of the most important films of the decade.
Final Score: A