Friday, January 15, 2010
"A Single Man", Part 2: Film Review
The movie version of Christopher Isherwood's "A Single Man" restored my faith that well-made, character-driven films still have a place on the big screen. Director Tom Ford, his talented crew, and his astounding cast, headlined by Colin Firth, demonstrate that talent, intelligence, and care can overcome a limited budget, a tight (21-day) shooting schedule, and a difficult subject. This is a beautiful film, a delight to the eye and ear, stimulating and aesthetically pleasing, sensual and emotional. It is one of the best films I have seen this year.
It is 1962 Los Angeles. Firth is George Falconer, a professor of English at San Tomas State College. He lives alone in a beautiful wooded home he shared with his partner Jim, who has died in a car accident. (No spoiler here, this fact is established in a dream-like prologue.) It is apparent that George can no longer cope with his loss, and we follow his activities during the course of one day, a day that George intends to be his last. His whole life is played out for us in this single day like a dreamy, mesmerizing "Mrs. Dalloway". (Even the lush yet subtle score is has echoes of Philip Glass' work in "The Hours".) Considering that this is an intimate portrait of a man in despair, the film moves as smoothly and as economically as Isherwood's prose. Ford creates a tangible world that is convincing and inhabitable.
I must express early my utter gratitude for Firth's work here. He knows this character, and embodies him with intelligence. Played in almost constant closeup, Firth's George is less angry than Isherwood's, more faceted, and he is in sublime control of his effects; every muscle of his face, every nuance of his posture are composed like a fine piece of emotional art. Just stunning work.
"A Single Man" shows, without preaching, the emotional and physical devastation that results in having to hide one's true nature. Speaking to his students, George turns a discussion on anti-Semitism into a cloaked appeal to consider other minorities, why minorities are feared, and that to acknowledge that fear directly and honestly allows one a safety valve against persecution. George cannot discuss homosexals directly, and as Firth delivers this lecture, we see the conflict in his expression.
Firth is so natural, so much in character, that the thrill of his performance is time-released. We see an extroardinary display of emotion in a flashback to his hearing the news of Jim's death. He cannot appropriately let go, even while alone. Ford leaves the camera on Firth's face as George goes deeper and deeper into himself, and the confusion, the hurt, and the anger finally register. It is more than the grief of losing his lover; it is the knowledge that Jim's family does not consider him anything more than a friend, and so is not expected to attend the funeral.
When he does finally break down, it is in the company of an old friend and one-time flame, Charlie (the fabulous Julianne Moore, who embodies the free-spirited '60's), who well-meaningly offers herself to George with the mistaken idea that Jim was a substitute for real love and family. His resulting tirade in his reply, that "Jim was not a substitute for anything", was only barely hinted at in the book. I imagine this phrase inspired Ford to create this film. The convincing relevance of this sequence could be used as evidence in any trial for same-sex marriage rights.
In the novel, George tells his story in a detached, "other" point of view. In the film, the visual representation of George's detachment is the desaturated color of reality; whenever his passions are stirred, or he has a fond memory, there is an infusion of full, warm hues, whether it is the scent of a beloved dog, or a rememberance of himself and Jim reading together at home. Firth connects with us without overplaying. His romatic encounters with a young hustler near a liquor store, and with Kenny, a fascinated student, hint that perhaps George may still have some passion for life.
I saw the film within an hour of having finished reading Isherwood's novel, and the movie is a worthy attempt to translate what is essentially an interior monologue into a visual experience. Known as a giant in the fashion design industry, Ford directs his first film here, and he displays an impressive mastery of the kind of grammar that is still uniquely exciting to film-lovers (and is rarely utilized today): jump cuts, atmospheric color, probing closeups, flashbacks used to heighten emotion, appropriate expository voice-overs, long takes that allow characters to breathe, and meaningful camera movement. No histrionics, no dumbing down.
It is no surprise that Ford can design a shot, dress a set, and clothe his cast tastefully and gorgeously; but his understanding, for example, of new-wave editing rhythms to signify George's broken existence, or of juxtaposing shots to create meaning, heralds a true film buff who has created a personal statement while being true to the remarkable original work. In a recent NPR interview, Ford acknowleges the encouragement he received from Don Bachardy, Isherwood's surviving partner. In response to Ford's near-despair in how to bring the book to the screen, Bachardy tells Ford to simply "make it his own". (Bachardy has a small cameo in this film, in a scene in a faculty lounge.)
There are notable departures from the book, and although most of them allow the film a tighter and more compelling point of view, there are some mixed results in the translation. I was struck by the emphasis on George's last name, Falconer, which I am sure does not appear anywhere in the novel. A literary illusion, perhaps? (John Cheever maybe...)
A lot is made of George looking deep into people's eyes, desperate to make connections with them. (This is not at all the bitter, bitchy, cynical George of the novel, and I think it brilliantly lets the viewer identify with him; this film would not work if George wasn't likeable, and Firth brings a natural likeability---we root for him.) An extreme example of this motif, an enormous poster of Janet Leigh in "Psycho" as a backdrop in one scene, is less than convincing. The poster does make for a neat composition, though.
I admire the re-creation of the period without it becoming a period piece. Ford might have done more with a larger budget, but the constraints allowed him to make more subtle choices. I loved the house, and Moore's dressing room, and the way her earrings matched the wine goblets at dinner. And Firth, in his tailored suits, is gorgeous, even though it is hard to take your eyes off his face.
Ford's ending is a mistake, I think. So much effort was made to build another structure for the film, a device to create suspense that did not appear in the book, that it seemed unnecessary to finally end the film as the book ends. Ford effectively has two endings, when the first one, according to the dictates of Ford's script, would have sufficed...even though it is less despairing and cynical than Isherwood's.
But even that was so smoothly integrated, that the effect is only mildly disappointing. This is a work of an exciting new film talent, who is aided brilliantly by all involved. Special notice should be made to Matthew Goode as Jim, who has a boy-next-door smolder that made it easy to see why George loved him; and Nicholas Hoult as Kenny, George's curious student and kindred spirit, who may be George's emotional salvation. In a brief role, Julianne Moore provides terrific support. It is so good to see her play a character worthy of her portrayal that she is compelling to watch...it's some of her best work since "Far From Heaven". The score is wondrous, by a composer I will pay more attention to: Abel Korzenowski. The cinematography and lighting (Edouard Grau), the use of color, the construcion in the editing (Joan Sobel)...the design of course...are all first rate.
And, after Tom Ford, the movie really belongs to Colin Firth, who deserves every bit of recognition he is bound to receive. His is a performance almost too good for the vulgar prizes handed out each spring....but if he wins one of them, I will be cheering as loudly as the rest.