Every year on September 10th, my mom calls me. And she should, since that happens to be my birthday. But rather than sing “Happy Birthday” to me on my voicemail, she sings it to Colin Firth, who she did not give birth to but who shares by birthday. Because even though I’m her child, I’ll lose out on every shared birthday. And, well, I don’t really mind.
I decided to start on that light-hearted note because now I’m going to talk about A Single Man, the Tom Ford-directed movie that stars Colin Firth*. And I’m not saying that I’ve decided to start on a light note because I’m going to slam the movie – I’m not, and I pretty much liked it – but because the movie is far from light fare. If you’re looking for Bridget Jones-type moments like these
you’re out of luck. And, if you were hoping this guy shows up
well, that’s not going to happen, either. Though Colin Firth does swim in this movie. And he is significantly nakeder**. Another notable similarity between Pride and Prejudice and A Single Man is that at pivotal points in each film, Firth’s character is called “sir.” But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
While most of Colin Firth’s work ends (or includes) laughs and smiling as Firth broods and glowers at the lucky object of his affection, if you’re laughing or smiling at the end of (or during most of) A Single Man, you either didn’t get it or you’re kind of a jerk. A Single Man is one of the few movies that Firth carries alone, and it showed me that I’d like to see that happen more often. His portrayal of George Falconer, a gay English professor in California in the 1960s who has recently lost his long-time partner, was moving. His pain was palpable and Firth, never a particularly chatty actor, was able to take the silences that have always made him an intriguing romantic lead and transform them into moments of pure anguish. Firth’s George’s desperation was both uncomfortable and alluring – as an audience member, I didn’t want to confront that much heartbreak, but at the same time I didn’t want to turn my back on George. I spent the whole movie mourning with him and worrying about him.
The actors in A Single Man – Firth and, most notably Julianne Moore as George’s friend Charlotte/Charley – made the movie a study in desperation and loss. Through careful, tight performances every actor, major and minor, made every moment of the film full of deep struggle, longing, and fear of unknown pain. And I’m pointing this out because the strength of the actors and their performances were enough to convey the immense tension of the story to the audience. I don’t remember where I read it, but I had heard that it was clear that a designer, not a director, had directed A Single Man. And while I thought that Tom Ford did a solid job for a first-time director, I found the moments when it was clear that the designer had taken over pretty distracting. Again, I don’t remember and can’t find the review, but I remember the reviewer having a lot of trouble with Ford’s use of extreme close-ups, especially on the eyes. I have to agree with this criticism. For me, they were plot arrows that I didn’t especially need. And I suspect most audience members didn’t need them. I thought the movie was beautiful and mostly well done, but the style and design sometimes crowded out the narrative, making me wish that Ford could just let things be slightly more organic. The material and the performances felt like they needed a slightly defter hand and much less underlining of the main points. But, all in all, I think A Single Man was worth my time and I was glad to see Colin Firth have the room to be an actor and not just Mr. Darcy***.
* And earned Firth an Academy Award nomination.
** Did I just make up a word? Yes, yes I did. And did I just select clips from Pride and Prejudice and the modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice? Yes, yes I did as well. I can be ever so clever when I want to be.
*** Though, don’t get me wrong, being Mr. Darcy is a wonderful and valuable enterprise and I thank Colin Firth for everything he has bestowed upon humanity in the Mr. Darcy department. Praise be to Jane Austen.