Review: “A Single Man” (2009)
WARNING: MODEL-HANDSOME SPOILERS
“A Single Man” is a serious film with a one-joke premise. It’s a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of literature in Los Angeles in October 1962, and he’s spending it planning his suicide. His lover has recently died, he’s alone, he can’t go on. The Falconer cannot hear the falcon. But throughout the day, people keep intruding upon his plans. His divorcee friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), insists he come over for dinner, he runs into a hot Spaniard outside the liquor store, a cute student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), questions him, compliments him, insinuates himself into his life, goes skinny-dipping with him in the surf. By the end of the day George has an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and he’s ready to go on living. Then he has a heart attack and dies. Badda boom.
It’s an atmospheric film. Too atmospheric. It was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford from a Christopher Isherwood novel, and we get a lot of slow-motion shots of people too beautiful to exist against backdrops that feel designery—the Hitchcock “Psycho” painting on the brick wall, for example. George’s squabbling neighbors are beautiful, his students are model-beautiful, the secretaries at the university are done up just so, while Carlos at the liquor store could make even straight men gay. Even Colin Firth, who’s never exactly been Paul Newman, looks great in his designer eyeglasses and Tom Fordish suits. Thank God for the maid: She looks like a maid.
The movie opens with George dreaming he’s drowning. He dreams of a car accident in the snow and crawls up to a sprawled, bloody body and kisses him on the lips. Then he wakes up, and, in voice over, tells us how it hurts to wake up, how long it takes him to become George again, how each day is a haze. How today will be different.
In flashbacks, we get some of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), starting with the phone call informing him of Jim’s death in a car accident. The caller, Hank, is a sympathetic member of Jim’s family—the other family members voted against even passing along this information to George—but Hank’s sympathies only go so far. When George, distraught, asks about funeral arrangements, he’s told, in effect, Don't bother, the services are for family only. It took a moment to place the voice: Jon Hamm, Don Draper of “Mad Men.” So even the voices are shockingly handsome.
The best-actor talk for Firth begins with this phone conversation, particularly after he hangs up, when his face crumples into a myriad of emotions: horror, fear, pain, disgust, anger, guilt, horror. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the film seems a disservice to this moment.
Do we know when the car accident happened? How far in the past? The film, like George’s days, is a haze. The film is also like George in that both miss Jim. When we see him in flashbacks, with his amused eyes and love of life, we want to follow him, but we’re stuck with George, who’s cramped and internal and too persnickety even to kill himself properly. There’s certainly humor in the situation. He leaves his financial information in neat piles on his desk (to save someone the trouble) and lays out the suit and tie he wants to be buried in. “Tie in a Windsor knot,” he writes. He’s about to blow his brains out but he wants the Windsor knot. Then he can’t even do this. The pillows aren’t right, he worries about the mess, he tries it within a sleeping bag. Finally, fed up, he heads over to Charley’s for dinner.
Julianne Moore is also getting Oscar buzz, deservedly so. Charley’s still beautiful, but she’s aging and knows it, and she’s alone and feels it, and there’s pain in her smile and laugh. Their dinner together is sad. He counsels against living in the past and she responds, “Living in the past is my future.” His goal, of course, is, as he says earlier, to let go of the past “completely, entirely and forever.” And not in a carpe diem kind of way.
Before he takes another pass at blowing his brains out, though, he needs some Dutch courage and heads down to the local bar. There he runs into Kenny again, the cute student who’s been stalking him, and, with a kind of “fuck it” manner, he loosens up, goes skinnydipping, takes Kenny back to his place, and puts him to bed without bedding him. He has his epiphany staring at the stars. He’s feeling something like happy. And then he has the heart attack. Carpe diem indeed.
I’m curious about Isherwood’s novel now, since “A Single Man” feels like the kind of story that’s so internal it only works as a novel. Tom Ford and Colin Firth give it a go and create a fashionable failure.