A Single Man is an earnest story about a gay man genuinely in love with his partner and devastated by his death. It is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood that was written at a time (1964) where a gay, earnest protagonist might have been thought a bit more daring than it is today.
If George Falconer (Colin Firth) lacks some of the more obvious self-loathing qualities that normally mark period, gay protagonists, the film he occupies still has a chaste, skittish quality about it that feels a little dated in the post-Brokeback world. For all the longing gazes into the eyes of students and strangers, George’s ultimate inability to get it on (or, rather the film’s reluctance to show him doing so, even in flashback) unintentionally (I think) ends up feeling like it has its causes in something other than grief.
Firth has been nominated for an Academy Award, and his performance here is certainly a reminder of how solid he is and how versatile. The character is mostly staid, but there is range in the performance. Still, one wonders if there is an economy of social signification at work—the old “it must be a great performance because he convinced me he was gay” line of thinking.
Despite feeling as though the cultural work that the film is attempting is a bit behind the curve (which makes me wonder who the intended audience is), I should report that I found A Single Man quite moving and was a bit surprised that it was able to forge the sort of personal identification between straight audience viewer and gay protagonist that some technically better films have failed to create.
This is probably because George is a college teacher. In one key scene, he discusses a lecture that was perhaps too self-revealing with his student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, who goes toe to toe with Firth and comes out looking just fine, thanks). Kenny asks why George does not more often address the class as he has just done, with directness and urgency. George demurs that to do so requires a level of honesty within the classroom that is neither always possible nor amenable.
If the scene provided a moment of clarity for me about how impossible a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is, it is probably because I tend to think that transparency is one of the hallmarks of a great teacher. I used to think it was just a quality consistent with good teaching, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to think that the main thing a teacher gives students is himself (or herself; snicker if you must here, no I’m not talking about in that way). A policy that does not allow a teacher to speak freely does not allow a teacher to give freely, and nothing is more toxic to a student-teacher relationship than the sense that one party is withholding truth in any form from the other. If that sounds too abstractly spiritual, let me put it this way: the scene made me realize that I have certain freedoms that I take for granted as a matter of course which are not afforded to everyone. One of those is to take teaching examples or illustrations from my own life. Could I still teach if I couldn’t do this? Possibly. Would I be as good a teacher? No, on several levels.
Along the same lines, an early scene where Falconer gets the phone call that every person who is one half of a couple dreads reinforces the absurdity of expecting anyone to keep their public and private spheres separate. Even if and when one tries to do so, the public sphere has a way of asserting itself onto the private, and the only way to avoid intermingling is to withdraw—to have no public life. Once again, things I take for granted….My dissatisfaction with this as a focal point of my review is that it tends to make A Single Man sound like a Lifetime Movie for Television. It’s a much better film than that, even if I think that Tom Ford overdirects in spurts (too many underwater shots, too much opera music soundtrack). Then again, the person I saw it with largely praised the film for its visceral qualities, so it is quite possible that the very elements that took me out of the film are ones that might mesmerize others.
I suppose I might be misunderstood if I say that A Single Man is at its best when it is interested in (and allows us to be interested in) the plight of George the human being rather than George the representative Gay Man. Julianne Moore is wonderful as George’s best friend, but her speeches seem, in their way, as oddly dated as the homophobic panic in the eyes of George’s straight neighbors. Sure, that’s part of the point—the film is dated in another place and time—but the end effect is to make the film feel like an historical portrait rather than a timeless one.
That said, the film worked for me, and I think it will for those predisposed to view it sympathetically.