Thursday, 25 February 2010

A Single Man (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. Tom Ford, 2010)

From sixties sunshine to the folds of a rose, right down to the bronze buckle on our protagonist's tie, something shines in almost every frame of this aesthetically august work. We can not be surprised. Tom Ford is first and foremost a distinguished fashion designer. But now movie-goers have reaped the benefits of his (this year) unrivalled cinematography. And Colin Firth, so often so hard to believe in, has successfully immersed himself in his most interesting role to date. He is
George Carlyle Falconer, a gay, middle-aged literary academic and loner. He has just lost Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of sixteen years, who we become familiar with in plentiful, touching flashbacks. Although he insists "there is no substitute for Jim", George knowingly leads on another young, handsome acquaintance, one of his students, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), who sweetly never fails to address George as "Sir", even when they are naked in the nighttime sea together.

This notion of pederasty is engaging for the most part, but it forces the director into an awkward plot-corner, where George's progress and destination are seconded for too long by a stereotypical sycophant of a student. In a world without Jim, George's unsatisfying consolations are literature, the prospect of suicide, Potter, and close female friend, Charley. This is an Anglo-American world, set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when men wore their hair "like James Dean" and chic students smoked cigarettes in lecture theatres. Ford's observational talents are relentless: he doesn't miss a beat of the beat culture, nor does his film become a playground for politics or poetry alike.

Charley (Julianne Moore) is George's frustratedly platonic partner in loneliness; a widow living in ironic luxury. It is without doubt a vision of a
Paul Thomas Anderson Julian Moore: a flawed and frightened woman coveting glamour, splintered with regret. But in these circumstances, Moore's accent if off-putting, and the otherwise diligent cinematography is over-generous with this lost-cause-character. We can not be sure whether she is preying on George for good or for bad. Ultimately, they are probably using each other, and their laughter is uncomfortably desperate. Despite Ford's meticulous attention to Charley's make-up and her brief bursts of energy, Moore is at her affecting best, alone in bed, unmasked, where her character has room to grow. In one of the movie's most memorable set pieces, Charley comforts George at her front porch in a truly powerful display of grief and affection. The audio of bullish rain and a man's hysterical weeping are replaced by the saddest score imaginable.

Putting the difficult, Greek Love subtext to one side, George Carlyle Falconer is that unique teacher we take with us to the grave; he is an honest and bard-like sympathiser of disaffected youth in a fragile time (homophobia and the Cold War are beautifully understated). This is established early on in the film, by the frantic cutting between a reluctantly learned George, and a desperately learning Potter, as a bereaved master glosses his syllabus with personal, real pain. Although based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man better publicises Aldoud Huxley's novel,
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. This is the subject of George's lecture, and Huxley's book - concerned with the fey and the seductive - remains important throughout the film, piloting its thematic engine: we are made to understand perfectly why this bereaved forty something is fascinated only by the power of authors and infrequent intimacies. Here Ford cleverly communicates the disadvantages to privacy, with George barred from the love of his life's funeral service and repudiated by his neighbour (we assume) because of his sexuality. And yet at its most desperate A Single Man can become charmingly comedic, as George fails to even attempt suicide, zipping himself inside a sleeping bag or bracing himself in the shower, curtain drawn, holding a gun we hope is already obsolete.

This is impressive film making, if on occasion wayward, by a debut director transgressing professions, and rewinding clocks that tick constantly and loudly here as hail might against glass. "My watch is broken", George smiles, at last out of happiness, initiating a finale that washes over us with karma and tears and stillness.

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