While in New York last week, PJ and I saw A Single Man, which stars Colin Firth as an English professor, George, who is deciding what to do with his life now that his partner of 16 years, Jim, played by Matthew Goode, has died suddenly in a car accident. Set in 1962 Los Angeles, we follow George as he goes through the day putting his affairs in order; having decided that life is meaningless without Jim, he is going to kill himself at the end of the day.

Here’s the trailer:

A Single Man is a kind of gayer version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Like that novel, this film, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, allows us to not only follow the lead character as he prepares for a big event but also allows that character to reflect on life and its meaning. The narrative jumps back and forth between George’s depressed present alone and joyous past with Jim.

While George understandably feels alone, we see that there are at least three other options out there for him. While buying alcohol for a dinner party with his best friend, George meets a male escort, who sees George as a lonely guy who obviously needs his company. I really like what Tom Ford, the director and co-writer, did with this scene. It could have been incredibly clichéd and stereotypical; instead, it’s a beautiful moment of almost connecting.

The second alternative lies with his best friend, Charley, played by Julianne Moore. The two have known each other for decades, and she provided him with the only solace he could find after Jim’s death. Moore is amazing in this small role. She fills Charley with desire for George, hoping that he’ll want her now that Jim is out of the way. Although she knows he’s gay, she can’t help but want him to be straight. Moore definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here. It’s really amazingly affecting.

The third option is with Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult, one of George’s students. Kenny has a crush on George, and as the two of them run into each other several times over the course of the day, George sees an alternative to suicide that might be enough to make him reconsider his plan. Of course the central question is whether it actually is enough.

All of the actors in this movie are great, but Firth stands out for his performance as George. In the scenes in the present, he captures all of George’s hopelessness and depression followed by the slow realization that the three alternatives to suicide each offer him something potentially worth living for. In the scenes depicting his relationship with Jim, he’s  able to capture George’s quiet love and happiness. The most affecting scene is when George receives the call informing him of Jim’s death. The scene is forthrightly political — it illustrates how badly gay couples were (and still can be) treated by hostile, bigoted families. But Firth’s job here is to realistically show George’s reaction to this unexpected news and ill-treatment. Firth does an amazing job of showing George’s attempt to keep in sorrow in check while talking on the phone, his barely being able to do so. It’s an amazing scene, and Firth deserves an Oscar for that scene alone.

I’ve read some criticism of the movie for being too beautiful. And Ford’s direction is beautiful. The entire film is lyrical, a visual treat in its attention to detail. The sets, makeup, and costumes are perfect representations of the early 1960s. It’s a well crafted film.

After seeing the movie, I immediately wanted to read the novel. I found it at a bookstore, but decided not to buy it then. (I wish I had!) In particular, I had a gripe against the end of the movie, which I won’t write about so that I don’t spoil it for others. I wanted to see how the novel treated this scene, so I skimmed it a little. While the movie is generally faithful to the novel, there is one key difference that I like better in  the novel — a character is not present at the end of the novel while he is present at the end of the movie. His absence works much better for me. Also, the novel’s depiction of the ending is a little more tentative: Isherwood writes the ending as a supposition of what might have happened. I also like this framing a little better than the straight-up ending of the film, which really couldn’t incorporate the novel’s subjunctive narrative. I haven’t read the novel yet, but I definitely intend to.

At any rate, I really liked this movie a lot. It’s a quiet little gem of a movie, which means that it will undoubtedly be overlooked for Oscar wins even if it’s nominated in several categories. I highly recommend it.

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