Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: "A Single Man"

I had just been ruminating with some colleagues over the dearth of strong contenders for this year's Best Actor Oscar. And along comes Colin Firth.

Firth's performance as a detached, closeted gay English professor in early 1960s Los Angeles is a revelation, his best in years. It stands out as a departure for Firth, who has been somewhat pigeonholed in recent roles as the affable, eligible English bachelor always with a witty quip at the ready.

George, who is British but has spent the last 25 years teaching at a small L.A. college, certainly is a sharp fellow. But he's mourning the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, and has decided to blow his brains out.

The movie is based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, one of the first serious literary portraits of modern homosexual characters. It was adapted for the screen by David Scearce and Tom Ford, both screenwriting novices, and was directed by Ford, a famous fashion designer marking his first stint behind the camera. What an assured debut.

The story plays out as a single day in George's life, what he reckons to be his last. In his typical fastidious, detail-oriented way, he has arranged all his effects for whoever will find his body: Insurance papers, car keys, some money for his maid, even laying out his funeral suit with instructions for a Windsor knot in his tie.

But a series of encounters keep piercing through his grief and force him to ruminate on the loveliness of the life he is determined to extinguish.

The chief of these is dinner with Charlotte, an old college chum and once-lover. Julianne Moore plays Charly, divorced and boozy, and their extended scene could be a master course in film performance, except you never catch them acting. Firth and Moore's characters feel lived-in and naturalistic, two lonely people whose lives could have been entirely different, except for the fact that George is gay.

There's a revealing moment where Charly offhandedly says about George's life with Jim, "No, I mean a real relationship." George, who carefully conceals his nature from his colleagues and students, is nonetheless furious that she thinks Jim was merely a replacement for the love of a woman -- with Charly clearly picturing herself as the leading candidate.

Even though these two middle-aged people share a deep and abiding love, there's a sense that don't really know each other.

The other major event is a running conversation with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a young student of his who keeps crossing George's path. From the way his dreamy blue eyes stare and his cupid-bow lips purse, one senses Kenny is angling for more than a good grade.

Kenny cheerfully accuses George of not telling his students everything he knows, which George acknowledges but defends as the wise thing to do. It's obvious they're not just talking about Aldous Huxley.

If the film has a weakness, it's that we don't get to see enough of George and Jim's relationship, so we understand that George is devastated by the loss without really grasping what it is that has been lost.

One scene near the beginning of the film will endure with me for a long time. George, quietly reading at home, gets a call from Jim's cousin informing him of the fatal car accident. The cousin is doing this against Jim's parents' wishes, who did not even wish to inform George that the most important person in his life has died.

The exchange where George remarks that he had better get on a plane for the funeral and is told that he is not welcome at the service is one of the most lacerating moments ever filmed. And I couldn't imagine any actor other than Colin Firth filling that role.

3.5 stars

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