Richard Lindsay reviews A Single Man after the jump.
A Single Man is the somewhat ironic title for Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, adapted and directed by Tom Ford and starring Colin Firth. Firth’s character, George Falconer, could better be described as a widower, after losing his partner Jim in a tragic accident. But in the story’s setting in the early 60’s, society considers George, even after a sixteen-year relationship, to be a “single” man. This becomes torturously clear in the scene in which Falconer learns of the death of his lover from a stranger who calls to inform him of the accident. The phone conversation plays painfully long on film, as Firth brilliantly portrays intellectual reserve fighting against inner devastation. The final indignity comes when George is informed the funeral service will be for “family only”—confirmed bachelor roommates of the deceased not included.
The film’s action takes place over the course of one day, eight months after the phone call. As George Falconer “becomes George,” a process which he narrates during his morning routine, we see in flashbacks the life he built with Jim that came to such an abrupt end. George Falconer (like Isherwood) is a Californian British expat, an English professor who teaches Huxley to bored undergrads, a man who lives in a modernist glass house. He is so weighted with grief, the most he can hope for is just to “get through the goddamned day.” Falconer—a name that suggests someone who once adventured, who went forth in the world—now seems tethered and hooded. Eight months is too short a time to recover from the loss of a spouse, but on this day, George will make a decision about whether to, in the words of a character in The Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living or get busy dying.”
George’s situation reminded me of Martin Luther’s conception of the human condition as being “Cor curvatus in se,” that is, “The heart curved in on itself.” The fundamental human sin in need of grace is self-obsession, the tendency to see one’s own problems and needs as all-important, which closes us off to God and our fellow human beings. Over the years, I’ve found the grace that unbends my own soul in the most unlikely—well at least “unchurchly”—places: art, film, music, conversations with friends and strangers, and, in ways that might make Luther blanch, the erotic.
It is through the erotic that the divine seems to be reaching out to George—three times in the course of the film. The first of God’s unlikely ministers is a humpy undergrad, a student in George’s English course. Kenny follows George out of class, filling him with the million banal philosophies of youth, and making a small gesture of kindness at the school bookstore. He finally asks George out for a drink, as much out of sexual interest as an awareness that, “You just look like someone who could use a friend.” George acknowledges as much, but has important self-pitying to do, so he declines. The second opportunity comes from a meet-cute moment in a liquor store parking lot with a Spanish hustler. Carlos is James Dean come to life—all t-shirt and rough exterior—but he offers George a smoke and a conversation that suggests his interest is in more than just a business deal. Once again, George walks away. The final opportunity comes from his long-time friend and neighbor Charley (Julianne Moore), an over-aged mod girl from London who would do anything to make George straight. They get drunk and kvetch about their lost loves, daring each other but not themselves to let go of the past and create a future. They end up in each others’ arms, but George shoots her down.
Each example of grace offered is full of flaws and objections, at least from a societal perspective. A sexually-charged drink with one of his students, half George’s age? Totally inappropriate. An immigrant sex worker who offers George carcinogens? How politically incorrect. A middle-aged alcoholic divorcee who insists on throwing herself at a gay man? How exploitative. And yet, in each person and situation, grace abounds, offering an imperfect but vital opportunity for connection to the sacred in defiance of accepted morality.
In the hands of director Tom Ford, former creative director of Gucci and the perpetrator of the “skinny suit” on an increasingly fat America, the film becomes a celebration of high modernist style. The impeccable design and cinematography mostly add to the meditative tone of the film, as long as one never thinks the words, “perfume commercial.” Ford is smart in his use of light and color to tell the story, but even smarter in leaning on his cast, training the camera on Colin Firth as the actor spins off the performance of his life.
Despite the potential dismissal of a fashion designer as a movie-making dilettante, it’s important not to underestimate the achievement of this film. As Manhola Dargis of The New York Times mentions, in the opinion of one of my favorite writers, Edmund White, Isherwood’s book was perhaps the first truly liberated gay novel. The very idea that a man could find a 16-year happiness with another man, and a deep well of grief at his loss, was unheard of at the time, and still controversial today. (As of this writing, about 52% of the California populace still believes this to be impossible.) George Falconer is perhaps most remarkable for his ordinariness.
In the end, it’s in the midst of the ordinariness of this single man that the sublime breaks in. It’s not giving away a happy ending to say that one of George’s erotic angels eventually gets through to him, if only for a moment. It’s a moment that seems no less charged with the miraculous for having come from the “mere” connection of one human being with another. The beauty of connection between these two characters, the skillful painting of tragedy in light and color, the sheer joy of watching a supremely talented actor bring a fascinating character to life—all of these elevate a highly stylized film into the realm of the spiritual.