It’s funny how something as simple as watching a film again can totally change your perspective on it. I saw “A Single Man” originally in the theaters with my mother and, while I liked it, my mother found it rather slow and a bit boring. I think that ended up coloring my view of the film somewhat. I liked it enough, though, to decide that I wanted to pick it up and add it to my collection when it came out on Blu-Ray this past Tuesday. Having watched it again, it’s striking just what a beautiful little film this is and what a life-affirming message it has.
Which you wouldn’t guess from a film that has, at its heart, death. For George Falconer (Colin Firth), life no longer has any meaning. His partner of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode), died eight months ago in a violent car crash and George has lived under an oppressive weight of sorrow and misery ever since, to the point where he says simply waking up in the morning hurts (there is a recurring dream sequence in the film which shows George drowning, a not terribly subtle illustration of his current state of mind). He has not even been allowed to grieve properly, at one point being told by Jim’s family that his presence is not wanted at the funeral service. While he may appear polished and together on the outside, George has determined that life no longer has any meaning, any value. That there is only solution: to kill himself. And on this day, November 30, 1962, that is exactly what he plans to do.
He has carefully made all the necessary arrangements, laid out all the necessary paperwork, made sure that everything is in order. But with the certainty of his death comes an odd kind of freedom: the freedom to look at the world in a way he hasn’t allowed himself to look at for months because he believes it to be the last time he will ever see it. It’s through that freedom that George really starts to see the world around him again for the first time since Jim’s death, allows parts of himself to be reached that he has left closed off for months. Director Tom Ford has a nice little trick to shows us when these moments are happening: where most of the film is shot in dull, drab, desaturated colors, George’s world blossoms into vibrant Technicolor when he finds himself emotionally engaged or when he has a visceral reaction to something. The smell of a secretary’s perfume. The bright colors of a child’s clothing. The sight of two bare chested tennis players in action.
Color. Vibrancy. Passion. Life. Beauty. Under the specter of death, life has chosen to blossom in all of its wonder around George, to remind him of all that he has missed in his grief, of all that he has allowed himself to believe he no longer has any chance of experiencing. Illustrative of this is the character of one of George’s students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). Casting Hoult, if I’m honest, is slightly over egging the pudding: with dyed blond hair and a tan, Hoult cuts a ridiculously good looking figure on film, almost stupidly beautiful. Which is actually a bit of a shame because, while Kenny’s beauty is important, it’s really not what he’s meant to represent.
Beauty’s role is taken by a James Dean look-a-like Latino hustler that George meets in a liquor store parking lot. Their encounter is a surprisingly touching one by virtue of not going where you would expect. The hustler automatically assumes that George is looking for sex where all George wants to do is appreciate his beauty for a while, to enjoy his company. The hustler is able to see through George’s defenses, to recognize him as someone who is lonely and in need of someone in his life. He seems to develop a genuine affection for George, a willingness to be the person to fill George’s void. It’s almost irrelevant whether the hustler genuinely means it or not: even the idea of someone wanting to get close to him is something George has let himself believe will never again be possible.
Kenny’s role in the narrative, on the other hand, is that of youth, of life. There’s a lot of tap dancing around the issue of whether or not Kenny is gay (I believe he is and can’t understand the reluctance to say so). What is clear about Kenny, though, is that he’s someone who very much believes himself to be different to the rest of the world. Kenny doesn’t think the way they do, doesn’t feel the way they do, doesn’t have the same outlook on life as the rest of the world. In George, Kenny believes himself to have found his “soul mate”: someone who understands what it’s like to be “different”, someone who can give him advice and answers in how to handle not fitting into the conventional mold of society. Perhaps, even, someone to love.
It’s a role George has allowed himself to believe he can no longer fulfill. During a dinner with his long-time friend Charley (Julianne Moore), we get a glimpse as to why that is. They are contemporaries, two people struggling to figure out what to do now that their youth has left them. For Charley, the “solution” has been to cling to the past, to try and maintain the image she had in her youth, even dream of an idealized past in which their one shared sexual encounter had led to a “real relationship”. George, on the other hand, simply believes that he no longer has a future. His time with Jim has come and gone and the rest of existence, in his mind, offers him nothing to replace it. It seems almost a breakthrough when, during a shared evening at George’s house, George allows himself to fantasize about Kenny, to let himself believe he can experience that kind of joy and passion again…before shaking his head and dismissing it as “pathetic”.
The breakthrough comes later on in the evening, when George awakens from an alcohol induced slumber. Finding himself suddenly in bed, he wakes up and looks around the house to see what has happened. It is then that he spots Kenny asleep on the couch, looking angelic, the gun that George had planned to kill himself with pressed tight against Kenny’s body. It seems the universe has sent George a guardian angel, someone to remind him that life is not hopeless and that there are people still willing to care for you if you will only let them in. It seems George has had a change of heart: he throws the farewell letters he has written into the fire, a new resolution having gripped him.
But the universe has one last horrible irony to visit upon George. It is at the moment when he finally chooses life, when he finally decides that he does have a reason to continue living, that death comes to claim him. His breath catches, his chest seizes and, as Jim bends down to give George a kiss, he breathes his last. The lesson finally learned, George’s life comes to its end.
The acting in this film is phenomenal. Colin Firth is exceptional, playing off the British reserve he’s so well known for but adding additional layers of sadness and pathos. In the moments where George’s mask slips and the pain comes to the surface, Firth’s face is an expressive wonder, able to convey the deepest of emotions with the subtlest of gestures. Matthew Goode’s contribution is, I believe, somewhat undervalued but it is crucial to understanding not only Jim and George’s relationship but the effect that Jim’s loss has on George. Where George is a bit repressed, Jim is open and warm; where George is a bit staid and stodgy, Jim is alive and vibrant. Their first meeting is telling, Jim deflecting a potential suitor with a smile, a look in Jim’s direction, and an “I think I’m taken”. Theirs is a relationship perhaps not presented as traditionally “romantic” but certainly as very loving and intimate: this is a couple whose idea of a perfect evening is sitting at home together reading and listening to music, content in each other’s company (even if Jim prefers Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Kafka and complains that George never likes any of the records he puts on). Nicholas Hoult is absolutely radiant, almost glowing with youth and vitality as Kenny; it’s easy to see why George finds himself excited by Kenny’s presence, even attracted by it. Julianne Moore is also very strong in her portrayal of a woman desperately trying to figure out the answer to the question “what now?”, to keep from acknowledging the fading of her youth and the passage of time.
“A Single Man” is also a gorgeous looking film. Tom Ford’s previous background in fashion shows, every shot immaculately composed and perfectly framed (there’s one particular shot in the film which I consider to be one of the most truly sensual ever put to film…and it’s just a closeup of a pair of lips exhaling cigarette smoke). But Ford isn’t just about pretty pictures. He also allows the actors an enormous amount of freedom, allowing them to get at the truth of both the narrative and of their characters. If you didn’t know going in that Ford was a first-time film director, you’d never have guessed it. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.
While it may seem to be a film about death, “A Single Man” is truly a film about life: about the importance of experiencing each moment fully, of allowing yourself to be open to life and its wonders, of knowing that there is no pain so great as to cancel out the beauty and vibrancy of the world around you. “A Single Man” is a jewel of a film, one worth the 100 minutes it asks of your time. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a rental and see for yourself.