I missed A Single Man during the Toronto Film Festival and missed it again when it first opened theatrically. I was wary of it, noting review headlines that often insinuated the too-easy yet suspiciously accurate-sounding attacks on fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s excessively fussed-over, largely superficial direction. What made me keep wanting to see it was, of course, Colin Firth. Is there another leading actor so consistently pleasurable and moving to watch who makes so many mediocre movies? Would A Single Man be the one to showcase his tremendous blend of talent and pure screen presence? It has, in any event, won him an Oscar nomination.
Having finally caught up with A Single Man—the depiction of a day in the life of Firth’s Anglo-American English professor George, mourning the loss of his lover, set in November of 1962, and based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood—I was surprised to find the movie to be actually less glossy or formally rigorous or provocative that I’d intuited. Or hoped. It is an oddly cool movie for one so steeped in grief. There are loudly announced stylistic choices to be sure, but many of them fall short of their intended impact. Ford’s jump-cuts are annoying, and his jarring switching of angles within a scene is superfluous, often disguising stasis. His cutty yet ceremonialized flashbacks to moments shared by George and his conspicuously younger boyfriend convey little in the way of emotional weight. His combination of slow-motion and the shifting of the image from dull tones to saturated colour is employed frequently, which does help us to trace the many moment’s in George’s day when he briefly recognizes hints of beauty in an otherwise drab, Cold War era and now largely loveless world, but it also renders the technique a gimmick whose meaning is very limited. Besides, if George can so often be reminded of life’s value, even a purely aesthetic one, does his depression not begin to feel too close to mere self-pity?
Firth, unsurprisingly, looks very compelling. In fact, as unlikely as this might seem, with his lovely haircut, large framed glasses, and elegant suits, he closely resembles Marcello Mastroianni from roughly the same period in which A Single Man is set. (Julianne Moore, who plays George’s one close friend, by contrast seems modeled after Dusty Springfield.) Firth has absorbed his costume fully, letting it alter his posture and expressions. Ford’s careful attention to George’s personal appearance and accoutrements is commendable. It only seems problematic when it begins to seem like a replacement for characterization.
“I am exactly what I appear to be. If only you look closely.” This is George’s most memorable line, and says an awful lot about Firth too, whose best moments may be the ones where George, as a way of making peace with the world before leaving it—he’s planning to kill himself before the day is through—makes a point of saying something nice to women. In one such beautifully played moment, while complimenting a secretary’s hair, he almost looks like he’s in a trance. Firth has always had great success with a less-is-more approach to his craft. His eyes especially are exceptionally expressive, and his awareness of this allows him to make bold choices with regards to how much he lets his visage colour a moment. But A Single Man simply lacks colour, even during those moments when the whole world seems to blush for George, and Firth’s careful modulation and discretion, while still the best approach given the circumstances, can’t flush out what simply isn’t there to be had. George has some sort of revelation before the movie is through, though it barely registers on screen.
I’m thrilled that Firth is getting more attention as an actor, though I hope audiences less familiar with his work don’t get the false impression that A Single Man is its apotheosis. How much more alive, dynamic, charming, and emotionally vivid Firth has been in movies more obviously awkward or even tacky than this one. In some cases, more risky too. I'm thinking of one of Bridget Jones' Diary, and one of the all-time great comic punch-ups. I’m thinking of recent movies like Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me, where Firth played a single dad who was wildly neurotic, tactless, exhausted, and totally irresistible, or When Did You Last See Your Father?, where he played a middle-aged man seething with childish anger toward his dying pup. Hell, even in fairly awful or silly movies like the new Dorian Gray or The Last Legion or Where the Truth Lies or Easy Virtue… I could go on. The point is he’s a wonderful actor, and should he win an Oscar for A Single Man (which isn’t very likely, I suppose) then so be it. Just don’t let the movie’s undigested gloom let you think this guy can’t do so much more.