Monday, October 04, 2010

A quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed


When you discover an Author and are captivated by the first of his works you read it is quite likely that you will immediately want to explore the rest. That was certainly my experience with Christopher Isherwood. I read Goodbye to Berlin in my teens back in the early 1960s and soon I had worked my way through just about everything significant that Isherwood had written. It isn’t actually a particularly large oeuvre – perhaps a dozen or so major works – but every one is entertaining, thought-provoking and tumbling with sincerity. For many the best of them all will be A Single Man - I remember its first publication in 1964 by which time a greater tolerance was being shown in Britain, post Lady Chatterley. But still openly gay literature was something of a novelty in our then still rather backward society – even James Baldwin’s magnificent Giovanni's Room was a bit of an under-the-counter purchase! And the idea that a book like A Single Man could be filmed and shown on general release would not have been considered possible – certainly without what would have been utterly destructive censorship. In our more enlightened age these restrictions no longer apply and it is with great pleasure that we can enjoy such a skillful and honest realisation of Isherwood’s work as in Tom Ford’s fine movie.

The loss of a partner is a common theme in the cinema but I doubt that it has ever been more sympathetically portrayed than in A Single Man – the book and, now, the film. I would like to make reference to an equally moving account in a much less “Arty” but no less interesting film – Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Funeral in that film was that of the colourful Gareth – a gay man who died suddenly at the third of the film’s weddings. At that funeral Charles (Hugh Grant) remarks “It’s odd isn’t it – all these years we’ve been single and proud of it, we never noticed that two of us were to all intents and purposes married all the time”. And these words resonate with those of Matthew, Gareth’s partner, who had touchingly quoted from WH Auden’s “Stop the clocks” – a poem which mourns the loss of a partner. Gareth and Matthew and, in The Single Man George and Jim, had partnerships that were so close and so loving that the loss of the partner, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, was too much to bear. Or it was in George’s case anyway.

A Single Man is a film about the response to grief. About how even the most educated and urbane of men, like Professor George Falconer, can quite literally find the loss of their life partner unbearable. The closeness of the relationship is illustrated in a few flashback scenes – most memorably one where the two men are sitting peacefully on a sofa and joshing a bit – as married couples do. They were one another’s “North and South and East and West” and for George it is clear that, as Auden put it, “Nothing now can ever come to any good” – and so he decides to kill himself. In part this decision comes from his loneliness – a state from which neither his long standing friend Charley (Julianne Moore) nor a handsome and possible gay or bisexual student admirer Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) can rescue him. These are two strong characterisations and the main theme of the film, the search for love and the extreme distress when it is taken from you is played out in their characters as well. Charley’s husband left him and while she has many “friends” she reveals that only George is a true one and someone she really cares about. Similarly young Kenny had a relationship with a very pretty fellow student Doris (Nicole Steinwedell) whose undeniable charms Tom Ford cleverly negates by showing her sullen in class and chain-smoking. Kenny has split with Doris and is perhaps seeking something more cerebral and satisfying with the stylish and classy George?

A Single Man is a quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed. It is about one key part of the human condition – our need for love and the way we manage it when it happens - and when it departs. It is a gay film as it was a gay book – but in a way that is incidental. George could be mourning the loss of a wife rather than a same sex lover – his response would have been the same – as Charley points out. To make it work sincerely Tom Ford had to get huge performances from his actors - most of all from Colin Firth who as George is on screen virtually the whole time. Firth is quite exceptional and his Oscar nomination and other awards were well deserved. He is utterly convincing – something he achieves by understating rather than exaggerating his performance. I also enjoyed immensely Nicolas Hoult’s Kenny – a difficult role to pull off because in less skilled hands in could turn into a sentimental child rather than the sensitive young adult that Isherwood wrote about and Ford clearly wants in the role.


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