Friday, January 29, 2010

A Single Man: Singularly compelling

A Single Man (2009) • View trailer for A Single Man
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, and much too harshly, for nudity and mild sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.10
Buy DVD: A Single Man • Buy Blu-Ray: A Single Man [Blu-ray]

We spend our lives searching for precious moments of clarity: the shock of epiphany that may come, if we're lucky, a few times before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

The recognition that, at this precise instant, everything makes sense.
Much as he might like to, George (Colin Firth) cannot freeze this pleasantly
intimate moment with Charley (Julianne Moore), despite her desire that he do
so; he's not in a position to provide what she needs. More to the point, he has
an appointment with his own pending suicide.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) thought he had found his place in life, the universe and everything, thanks to a deeply satisfying 16-year relationship with his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Everything made sense. But in a flash, during a drive on a snowy road in an entirely different state, Jim lost his life in a car accident.

Months later, George still hasn't recovered from the loss. He fantasizes being at the crash site, and approaching Jim's body to give him one last kiss: a comforting bit of closure denied to George, because Jim's parents  who never approved of the relationship  restricted the funeral and services to "immediate family only."

Director/co-scripter Tom Ford, working with screenwriter David Scaearce, has turned Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, A Single Man, into a beautifully constructed film with a captivating attention to detail. Much has been made of Firth's starring role, and deservedly so; it's an achingly melancholy portrait of a man who, much to his regret, can't hold himself together.

Ford brings his skills as a world-famous fashion designer to every frame of this film, which is composed with the skill of a master musician.

The film's most fascinating aspect, however, is its ingenious use of color: a technique not employed with such creativity since director Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau capture the mundane aspects of George's life with a washed-out palette: a muddy, sepia-hued filter that reflects the despondent cloud that poisons his brain.

Flashbacks to happier times with Jim, in great contrast, come alive with vibrant color. And as this story progresses, we're able to recognize the moments when George responds to a fresh stimulus  an unexpected personal encounter, a conversation that takes an unusual turn  before succumbing, once again, to despair.

The setting is 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis; George, an ex-pat British citizen, has lived close to the beach since immediately following World War II. He teaches literature at a nearby college, to students caught in the brief transitional years between the black-garbed Beats and the pot-smoking flower children to come.

And he has decided to put a bullet in his brain and end it all.

The day therefore turns into a ritual of closing up shop: clearing out his desk, draining his bank account, emptying his safe deposit box, carefully laying out the suit in which he wishes to be buried. Methodical to the last.

Vexingly, though, things keep getting in the way. An oddly observant student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), practically stalks him, encouraging conversation at a level of near-intimacy that George finds disconcerting, but not unpleasant.

Close friend Charley (Julianne Moore)  who, a failed marriage later, still pines for the relationship with George that she never could have had  demands that he keep a dinner date.

And so we wonder: Will circumstances conspire to "rescue" George from his own worst intentions?

Firth, generally known for more buoyant roles, is so persuasively miserable here that one wonders how he 'switched off' at the end of filming each day. George is a fascinating study: an engagingly literate  if perhaps a bit stuffy  academic who'd run a literature course that students would want to take. On one level, he's too intelligent to take his own life.

But his actions, increasingly, are ruled by his broken heart, rather than his head.

Firth's all-stops-out moment comes during a flashback to the phone call when he learns that Jim has died. The crushing despair is bad enough, but when informed that he won't be welcome at the services, a twitch of something else washes across his face: wounded pride, weary resignation.

Moore's Charley is an intriguing mess: the remnants of a once-vibrant woman who, like George, has been beaten into submission. Unlike George, she has turned killing herself into a career: one bottle of gin at a time. Much as she enjoys  craves  George's company, his presence also is a bitter reminder of what she never had; flashes of anger can be seen in her often brittle responses to even casual remarks.

Ford comes to film direction with impressive natural grace, starting with the performances he has coached from Firth and Moore. Granted, they're both powerful actors to begin with, but a story that charts this level of despair could sink into tedious bathos if not properly modulated.

Ford also has a great eye for delivering an arresting image of a mundane act. Consider an unusual overhead shot of George, early on, as he fills his briefcase: Every item initially is laid out neatly on his desk in a tableau as precise as Richard Chopping's memorable trompe-l'oeil paintings for the British hardback dust jackets of Ian Fleming's early James Bond novels.

A Single Man is a slow build, and could be regarded as dull. Occasional flashes of mordant humor do little to lighten the mood. One must engage this film as an acting tour-de-force, while also admiring its construction, and I can't blame those willing to dismiss both, the same way some of George's students display limited patience with Aldous Huxley.

Probably not a young person's movie, then. But as I get older, stories of this nature speak more to me.

Oh, and one more thing: The R-rating is inappropriate for a film that reveals no more than bared buns, and the "brief image of violence" is a joke. If this story depicted a heterosexual relationship, it'd be rated PG-13 and probably be allowed more nudity; the R is a spiteful rebuke from MPAA members who once again reveal their insultingly conservative streak. Shame on them.

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