It has been four years since Brokeback Mountain touched the hearts of gay viewers, and many of us have been pining ever since for another movie to reflect and evoke our experiences in an authentic way. Well, I’m happy to report the wait is over! A Single Man opens in limited release this Friday and will expand across the US on Christmas Day.
Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, a college literature professor grieving the loss of his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, who played the sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in the recent Watchmen). Jim died eight months earlier in an automobile accident. The men met at the end of World War II and were happily together 16 years (the film is set in 1962).
Increasingly lonely and unable to function effectively without Jim, George resolves to end his life. The film follows George during the course of what is intended to be his last day. As he goes about getting his affairs in order and making other preparations for his suicide, we gain glimpses into George’s past and George himself sees unexpected signs of hope for his future should he choose not to kill himself.
We meet Charley, a life-long friend of George’s played by the always-great Julianne Moore. Charley has a particular affection for Tanqueray gin (“I like the color of the bottle,” she tells George. “You like what’s inside it,” he replies in one of their comically honest exchanges) as well as for George. Viewers are also introduced to one of George’s students, Kenny (young cutie Nicholas Hoult), whose own unique feelings for George develop during the course of the movie.
Based on a 1964 novel of the same title by gay writer Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man marks the screenwriting and directorial debuts of fashion designer Tom Ford. Ford’s fine eye for detail is evident throughout the film, from the fluctuating photographic color scheme to the amazing period props, cars and set pieces to, of course, the costumes (the exquisite fashions in the film weren’t designed by Ford but by Arianne Phillips). Indeed, A Single Man is the most slavishly-devoted-to-period-detail film since 2002’s Far from Heaven, which also starred Moore and was written and directed by out filmmaker Todd Haynes.
I can’t say enough about how good A Single Man is in terms of both its overall artistry and depiction of homosexual life. Not only is it the best gay-themed film of 2009 (and I’m not forgetting this year’s earlier Little Ashes, an excellent exploration of the love affair between artist Salvador Dali and poet Federico García Lorca), but I dare say it is one of the best ever. While the gay characters are necessarily closeted for 1962, they are far from the self-loathing homosexuals of many movies of the past with queer characters. This includes Brokeback Mountain.
George and Jim are fully accepting of themselves and are unapologetically gay. They remain so despite Jim’s parents’ condemnation of their relationship, as well as the straight family man next door’s assertion that the neighbors are “light in their loafers.” George delivers a powerful, impromptu lecture to his students — intended to be his last — on how social minorities are the victims of the majority’s fear. Though George doesn’t mention homosexuals specifically among the minorities he lists, his point is so strong and truthful that he doesn’t have to for listeners to get the point.
A Single Man is also undeniably erotic. Firth and Goode have romantic and sexual chemistry to spare between them, and Hoult does a striptease for George (after they have both gone skinny-dipping) during the film’s surprising climax. All three actors show plenty of skin in the film but Ford presents the nudity artfully, which makes it all the sexier in my opinion. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the über-sexy Jon Kortajarena as well, as a James Dean-ish hustler who tries to pick George up.
The film may traffic in dark themes and issues of mortality, loss, loneliness, oppression and suicide, but it certainly isn’t humorless. Ford, co-writer David Scearce and, no doubt, original author Isherwood infuse George’s plight with unexpected wit without it being in bad taste. I predict gay men will be quoting the script’s funnier lines in the future.
Finally, Firth (who also played gay in last year’s Mamma Mia!) is emerging as a likely Oscar contender for his performance as George. He has already won the Best Actor award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and it would be the British actor’s first, somewhat overdue nomination for an Academy Award. Firth is simply wonderful in A Single Man.
Anyone — gay, lesbian, straight or other — who has lost a loved one will identify with George’s experience. As much as I expect gay men to fawn over this film, it tells an ultimately universal story that I hope will touch mainstream moviegoers as well.
on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.