Of all the Oscar contender type films filling the theaters in the December of 2009, A Single Man was not one of the ones I was looking forward to. While the film had a pretty nifty trailer, most of my enthusiasm disappeared as soon as I learned that the film’s director, Tom Ford, was a first time filmmaker who up to this point had made a significant fortune as a fashion designer. The world of fashion designers is something that I hold the upmost contempt for; it’s a pursuit for vain rich people with far too much time on their hands. Given that Ford dumped his own money into the film; the whole thing was displaying all the signs of being a vanity project. But there was one name that floated to the top of all discussions of the film: Colin Firth. Firth is not someone who would normally draw me to a film, in fact I’ve only ever seen three of the films he’s been featured in (The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Girl with a Pearl Earring), and I barely remember his role in any of them. But everything I’d heard about his work in this film was stellar, he’s been in the running for the Oscar for a while, and for the most part the film had been well received; so I decided to give the movie a chance.
The film is a study of a man named George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British ex-patriot living in Los Angeles circa 1962 who teaches English literature at a local University. Falconer is at a low point as the film opens, his gay lover has died in an auto accident and because he’s pretty deep in the closet he must retain his composure in front of most people; consequently, he’s been contemplating suicide. One person he can confide in is a woman named Charley (Julianne Moore), with whom he is a good friend. The Cuban Missile Crisis is in full swing, but Falconer hardly seems to care, he’s in the midst of his own personal crisis. The film takes place over the course of a single day, the day where Falconer will decide whether his life is still worth living.
It’s no secret that Colin Firth’s performance in this is the main thing this movie is being sold on both to the public and to award bodies, and this is mostly for good reason; Firth gives a really strong and restrained performance here. George Falconer is a very repressed character; he’s repressed in general just as an extension of him being a stiff professorial type, but these tendencies are multiplied by the pressures of being a closeted gay man during a time where being outed would have been disastrous. What’s more, he’s in a state of crisis and he’s not allowed to show his emotions in public. Consequently, Firth needs to be able to emote to the camera while showing minimal external displays of his internal feelings. That’s a really challenging place for an actor to be in, but Firth is able to carry it burden really well.
Unfortunately, Tom Ford as a director was a little to aware of the challenges the script posed and made a pretty big rookie mistake in trying to help Firth carry the burden. Throughout the movie the camera will go out of its way to highlight things that Falconer is looking at. Worse yet, Ford has ordered cinematographer Eduard Grau to increase the lighting whenever Falconer is feeling better and then saturates the picture whenever he’s on a particular down note. This intrusion is really unnecessary, mainly because there’s enough communicated by Firth’s performance that the information Ford is conveying is simply redundant. Ford should have just trusted his actor to do what needed to be done, instead he added in a bunch of distracting shots that sort of wreck the film’s style, especially during the first half.
There are, however, two really string scenes that salvage the movie from some of the director’s rookie mistakes. The first is the film’s opening sequence, in which Falconer is told of his partner’s accident over the phone and is forced to maintain a stiff upper lip to the man on the other end while he’s clearly distressed on the screen. This scene is an early highpoint in Firth’s performance and it clearly sets up the problem he faces for the rest of the film. The second great scene is a ten minute sequence late in the film’s second act in which Falconer visits his long time friend and confidant Charley (Julianne Moore). Because his friend is in on his secret, this is the one scene where Falconer is able to relax and be himself. It isn’t an entirely happy sequence but the audience is able to relax along with Falconer.
A Single Man reminded me in many ways of the 2000 Curtis Hanson film Wonder Boys, another film which showed a day or two in the life of a professor going through a personal crisis. Really, these movies that follow people through ordinary days that prove to be turning points are sort of a stock formula, but it’s a convention that usually works pretty well. I don’t want this to merely be seen as a movie that’s only good because of a performance, because I do think that there’s a lot more to enjoy than simply watching Firth’s performance, and yet I must admit that this performance is the key to why the film’s other elements work so well. I think what’s important is that I did feel for George Falconer the whole way through, and I enjoyed peeking in on him throughout this day, and that alone means the film pretty much accomplished what it set out to do.
***1/2 out of Four