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A Single Man

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man.

Pre-liberation queer blues: A Single Man

For decades, writer Christopher Isherwood’s reputation has rested primarily on his authorship of Goodbye to Berlin, his 1939 story collection that became the basis for Cabaret. But over the last 30 years or so, regard for his short 1964 novel, A Single Man, has risen. It has been particularly admired by a number of gay writers and critics for its unapologetic depiction of a gay protagonist, one of the first to present a gay man who was neither an ennobled victim nor a pathological outcast.

It may be difficult to appreciate that importance from Tom Ford’s new movie version of Isherwood’s novel, and only part of the problem is to be found in what Ford has done with it. In part, of course, it’s a question of autre temps, autre moeurs. But the novel would be hard to adapt in any case. It’s composed to a large extent of subtly shifting moods, episodes of memory, thought and feeling, and some interwoven social and philosophical ideas of Isherwood’s, including some influenced by his Hindu religious convictions. There’s a plot, but the narrative ambit is constricted.

Isherwood was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and like that novel his follows the central character through one crucial day. George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aging English teacher at a Los Angeles college who arises one Friday with his usual aching weight of depression and grief. “For the last eight months, waking up has hurt,” he tells us in voiceover.

It’s been that long since his lover Jim (Matthew Goode, seen in flashbacks) died in a car crash, leaving George to soldier on alone in a largely unknowing and potentially disdainful straight world. It’s 1962 and he is socially and personally isolated in his sexuality and sorrow. Even his best friend, neighbor, fellow expat Brit, and one-time brief fling partner Charley (Julianne Moore) isn’t always fully able to understand his loss. (George’s isolation seems a little exaggerated, as it did in Isherwood’s novel. The author himself was scarcely so socially alienated and closeted and it seems unlikely that a witty, cultivated man like George would be so shut out despite the era’s restrictions and risks.)

Like the book, the movie tags along with George as he rises and prepares for work. He distractedly glances at some half-naked youths playing tennis as a campus colleague bores him with talk of air raid shelters (it’s the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis). In his modern literature course he gives vent to a little lecture on the repression of minorities—although Ford omits Isherwood’s message about the damaging effects discrimination and persecution have on the character and behavior of those singled out for this treatment. Afterward, he awkwardly fields the rather forward and flirty overtures of a beautiful young student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); has drinks and dinner with Charley; and eventually goes for a late-night dip in the ocean with the knowing and surprisingly persistent Kenny.

Ford, a former prominent fashion designer (for Gucci), has approached the material respectfully and in earnest. He hasn’t unwisely tried to update the book, and he’s transferred some of its scenes and dialogue with reasonable fidelity. The movie’s best scene comes early on, as George relives the phone call from a cousin of Jim reporting the car accident, politely telling him he won’t be able to attend a memorial service.

Firth, whose performance has been widely and justifiably praised, registers the tremendous effort George must put into trying to sound inexpressively civilized with this stranger on the phone, tensing his face and voice to suppress a genuine reaction.

But Ford—who directed as well as co-wrote the movie with David Scearce—has miscalculated elsewhere, and Firth’s performance can’t completely overcome some lapses. Ford has tried to solve the problem of the novel’s limited narrative ambit by having George decide to make this Friday his last, to finally terminate his lonely anguish. This is a crude imposition, particularly as Ford has handled it. In one scene, he even descends into a kind of morbid slapstick that cracks the movie’s tone and deflects its theme.

And he has employed a surfeit of stylizing motifs and devices—including an annoying recourse to slow motion—that sometimes make his movie distractingly resemble a downbeat music video, or, in some lingering compositions, a male-fashion shoot. Perhaps because of his inexperience, he’s let a couple of important performances go unchecked. Moore overworks the indolent, unhappy lush of confidante to George, although the result isn’t a complete failure. Hoult is more unpersuasive; he doesn’t really capture what’s intended to be Kenny’s combination of precocious perceptiveness and boyish, undergraduate confusions.

What most binds A Single Man together is Firth’s tempered but poignant impersonation of a man on the brink who thinks he has no one to whom he can communicate his plight. It’s a quietly compelling achievement that seems to transcend the movie.

Watch the trailer for A Single Man

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