Friday, July 16, 2010


Heartbreaking loss conveyed heartbreakingly well

By Edward Copeland
With the countless hours (probably closer to years or decades) of movies I’ve sat through, I believe I can say that I have never witnessed a more realistic depiction of grief than Colin Firth delivers in A Single Man — and that includes many great performances — but Firth may very well top them all. Every expression, every gesture he makes will evoke instant recognition in anyone who has lived through similar heartbreak, even if the specifics aren’t the same.

Firth always has struck a light, charming pose in most of his screen roles, but 2009 brought two great ones that seemed to break the actor out of his usual rut: A very impressive and brooding supporting turn in Easy Virtue and his Oscar-nominated role here in A Single Man as gay British college professor George Falconer who is teaching in Los Angeles in 1962 when his partner of 16 years, Jim, is killed in a car wreck.

It may seem as if I’m being a bit hyperbolic in my lead with my praise of Firth, but since I’ve watched his portrayal — and I’ve actually viewed it twice since I also listened to first-time director Tom Ford’s commentary — I have searched my movie memories for other memorable portrayals of grieving and while I can think of many great ones (I wrote of Jessica Lange in Men Don’t Leave not that long ago), I truly cannot think of another actor or actress who has created as accurate or moving a portrayal of personal loss as Firth. Simply put, he touches and he astounds.

A Single Man marks Ford’s directing debut (He also co-wrote this adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel with David Searce). Ford is best known for his work as a fashion designer and his first job helming a film shows the influence of that career on the way he chooses to depict a pivotal day in George’s life eight months after Jim’s death. After more than half a year of sleepwalking through life, George wakes up on that day in November 1962 determined to do and see things differently, mainly because he’s planning to see everything for the very last time.

The color scheme surrounding Firth is deliberately muted and washed out while what he sees springs to vivid and colorful life, something that is especially emphasized in a scene with one of his students (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up since playing the kid in About a Boy), Kenny, who takes an interest in George and walks with him and Kenny’s face literally changes to a more colorful hue before George’s eyes.

The one constant splash of color in George’s life is his best female friend Charley (Julianne Moore), another British expatriate living in Los Angeles. In their younger days, George and Charley were briefly lovers as George was still finding himself, but that part of their relationship meant more to Charley than George, since he could only fall in love with man. Charley can bring him comfort and fun, though she can enrage him as well as when she dares compare her husband leaving her after nine years to George’s loss of Jim (played in flashbacks by Matthew Goode) after 16. It almost goes without saying that Moore turns in her usual, excellent performance.

Another fine touch in the film is its score, provided by not one, but two composers, Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi. Korzeniowski provides the more conventional aspects of the film’s music but Umebayashi, who has worked a lot with Wong Kar-Wai, provides additional, strings-heavy touches that are so evocative and beautiful that they sound as if they are flowing directly out of George’s bloodstream.

Still, A Single Man might not succeed without the strength of Firth’s brilliant performance. Some of Firth’s most amazing work comes early in the film when it flashes back to when he received the news of Jim’s death from one of Jim’s relatives (the voice on the phone, ironically, is Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, stuck in the ‘60s again) who, though he is performing a kindness, makes the blow worse by informing George that Jim’s parents didn’t want to call him and he isn’t welcome at the funeral. It’s a stinging reminder of what a homosexual’s life was like 50 years ago and in many ways, especially legally, remains today. Regardless of one’s sexuality or the time period, grief is universal and anyone who has experienced a blow like George does will relate.

Despite the fact that this is a film about mourning, there are occasional touches of humor, but in the end it’s the emotional wallop that Firth packs that makes A Single Man such a remarkable experience. For some, it may be too emotional and painful to watch, for others, it will just hold little interest. It’s a shame, because if they skip it, they will miss a spectacular example of screen acting.

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Nicely observed. I can think of a Japanese film I saw recently that is about a young woman's continuing grief for her dead husband - MABOROSI. Very moving and realistic.
If it weren't for Firth's mostly-excellent performance (a few moments in the beginning were a bit forced), there's the possibility that I would hate "A Single Man", but as it is, I merely dislike it (*heavily*). Ford's directing, to me, seemed extremely amateurish, almost on the level of a student film in it's utter lack of subtlety. Now he's happy, crank up the colors! He's devastated, take the sound out and shake the camera!

Add to that a plot that pretty much follows American Beauty point-by-point and some at-times laughable acting by Hoult, and Firth truly is the film's only bright spot for me, and not nearly bright enough to make "A Single Man" passable.
Sometimes you just have to let yourself give in to the emotions and having experience heartbreak like Firth's character has, it rang so true that it all rang completely true to me. I don't really get the American Beauty comparison at all. This wasn't remotely a semi-satirical look at suburbia, it was a study of loss.
Did Ron and Jonathan see the same movie I did?

I thought "A Single Man" was the best movie I've seen this millennium! (Of course, you should keep in mind that I have an 11 year old child, so my movie watching has been restricted to the likes of "Shrek" and "Enchanted.")
When I saw the film last winter, I thought Colin Firth's performance was extraordinary - the year's best, in fact - and I had a hunch you would feel that way too when you finally caught up with it. The film itself doesn't match his level - it's interesting from a compositional standpoint in terms of its visuals, but oddly static and often feeling more stylish than substantive. I love Julianne Moore dearly, but I wasn't too impressed with her here, and I'm not sure quite why - for whatever reason, she didn't seem right for the part, and overmatched in her scene with Firth. That said, Firth's performance overrides whatever flaws the film has - as grandma would say, it's a keeper.
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