Many critics aren’t fond of novel-to-film adaptations because they believe the visual can’t capture the nuances of the written word, particularly third-person narration. And I tend to agree. While The Scarlett Letter is a classic piece of literature, the on-screen version left much to be desired (although it could be because Demi Moore played the lead). The same happened with Perfume (Tom Tykwer), Love in the time of Cholera (Mike Newell) and, although it’s narrated in the first-person, the recent The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) – all great books because the narratives are expressed through thought rather than dialogue or action. And all films that lack the weight of the central characters’ self-contained worlds.
Perhaps that is why I fell in love with A Single Man (I’ve also been in love with Colin Firth for a while) – I didn’t read Christopher Isherwood’s novel, upon which the film is based, and so, I can’t venture an opinion on the appropriateness of using first-person narration in film as an attempt to translate the imagination of the protagonist, something which is more easily captured in words. And that is probably a good thing because there is a chance I would not have appreciated the film as much had I read the novel first.
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut is a film scholar’s dream. It has everything that is necessary for a film worthy of analysis: plot, character, award-winning actors and the kind of cinematography that makes you want to weep for its beauty. Every mise-en-scène has been carefully constructed so that everything has meaning. Ford has been heavily criticised for making the film ‘too beautiful’. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “Bereavement by Dior”, while Mail & Guardian reviewer, Shaun de Waal, though it “over-styled”. But film is a visual medium after all. It is like comparing paintings by Kandinsky and Hieronymus Bosch and calling the latter cluttered.
The film traces a day in the life of George (Firth), a gay literature professor living in Los Angeles during the Cold War-obsessed 1960s. He’s grieving the loss of his life partner of 16 years, Jim, who died in a car accident eight months before. George struggles to carry on, partly because he’s never had the chance to go through the ritual of saying goodbye to his lover (Jim’s family refused to let him attend the funeral). The death of a loved one results in a sense of disconnectedness from everyday life – how does the world simply go on while one’s own has stopped? As George sits in his bathroom he stares out the window and observes the outside world: his neighbours arguing, a little girl playing in the dirt, a young boy squashing a butterfly – echoing the brevity of life. “Just get through the god damn day”, he tells himself.
George meticulously plans his suicide as he goes through the routine of the day and the contrast between his thoughts and actions results in something that recalls theatre of the absurd. George’s life, as life in general, is made up of a series of moments that seem meaningless at times. However, as the day progresses, he encounters different people who all make him reassess his life – a conversation with a struggling actor, dinner with his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore) and a drink with a student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). These moments are ones of “absolute clarity, when for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and [he] can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh”.
What makes the film so enjoyable is that there is plenty of dark humour behind the drama. The scene in which George tries to kill himself is comical in its absurdity. He wants to shoot himself but can’t get comfortable on the bed. He then decides to rather kill himself in the shower (perhaps to save someone the trouble of cleaning up all the blood off the sheets) but he slips and falls down. He then rather bizarrely proceeds to lay out a sleeping bag on his bed and zip himself up completely. The phone rings, ruining the ‘moment’ and he postpones his plans.
In A Single Man, Firth has managed to score his ‘role of a lifetime’. While he’s always been a solid lead actor, he’s never been this emotional, this immersed in a character. And Julianne Moore is radiant (as always) as Charley – Firth’s drama queen former lover and closest confidante. Nicholas Hoult on the other hand is barely recognisable – the cute kid from About a Boy is gone and in his place is a grown-up, sexy and promising young actor.
A Single Man shows how life is about human relationships, about our connection to others. Grief serves to cut us off from this but, just as in every shot of the film, there is something that has meaning and that maybe, as George concludes, “everything is exactly the way it was meant to be”.
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Colin Firth (George), Julianne Moore (Charley), Nicholas Hoult (Kenny), Matthew Goode (Jim)
Awards: Oscar nomination for Best Male Actor – Colin Firth
Rating: 5 out of 5 (I don’t seem to have watched any really awful movies lately?!)