A Single Man (2009)

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A Single Man is a film that came out in 2009 and was largely overlooked (wrongly, in my opinion) other than the Oscar nomination Colin Firth received for his portrayal of the film’s protagonist, George. The film takes place in 1962 on what may presumably be the last day of George’s life. Eight months prior George’s lover of 16 years, Jim, died in a car accident. The grief and depression George has faced in the aftermath of this event have become too much for him to bear, so he sets out that day planning on killing himself in the evening.
A Single Man is designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut and it’s quite a good one. I can see how the film would turn off some viewers, but personally I love it. Aesthetically it is a very beautiful film, which isn’t surprising considering the director’s day job. The opening imagery of George metaphorically drowning is beautiful in a somber, melancholy way. The close-ups of people’s eyes throughout the film was interesting, at least when it seemed to obviously invoke memories of Jim. Other times it just seemed to linger too long to the point of being boring. The use of color was also something I really liked. Most of the time the film’s palate is kind of bland. But when George talks to certain people suddenly all the colors start to brighten and pop. I loved the set design (George’s house is beautiful) and the costumes, but this is also in part because I simply love the 60s. I also enjoyed the use of ambient sounds in the film. The sound of the rain drowning out George’s anguish, a child hammering away, the sound of the phone ringing conjuring up memories of Jim’s death. And the ticking clock throughout the day, but especially at the end, was very effective. I found all this very interesting and the score itself is absolutely beautiful.

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I find the film is a good examination of the grieving process. I found it extremely relatable. I found particularly effective how all the little events that occur throughout the day evoke memories of Jim. In this way, Jim, and George’s grief, is always present no matter what George is doing. George struggles to “just get through the goddamn day.” The motif of George drowning is readily apparent. A lot of the credit for how effective this film is has to go to Colin Firth. His performance here is remarkable, in a lot of ways I find it superior to his work in The King’s Speech, which he won his Oscar for. Here he is reserved, but still able to communicate so much pain (and lust) through his eyes, his subtle mannerisms. Julianne Moore is a highlight as well. In the short time she is on screen she is charming, funny, and incredibly pathetic. It would have been nice to see a little more of her. And I loved her eye make-up.

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As much as I do like this film there are a few things wrong with it that keep it from being amazing. For one thing, I love how the film looks, but everything just seems to perfect. George is extremely well put together for someone who is in such anguish. It would have been nice to see a hint of some kind of dysfunction in his house or on his clothes. And I found it pretty funny that a few characters remark that George looks awful throughout the film because I’ve never seen Colin Firth look better 😛 A small problem I have with the plot is when Kenny finds a picture of Jim in the bathroom drawer. If we are to believe that George is extremely fussy and keeps everything in its proper place then why the hell did he hide the picture under the bandages? It puzzles me. But anyways, the biggest problem for me in this film was the character of Kenny, a young student of George’s, played by Nicholas Hoult. Hoult’s acting is borderline terrible and really drags things down. He is monotone and comes off as naïve. Kenny talks about things like fear and loneliness, but Hoult’s delivery makes it seem totally unbelievable. Maybe he’s just out acted by Colin. And Kenny’s fuzzy white sweater just looked ridiculous. I understand they probably wanted him to wear something obviously gay, but it really wasn’t necessary.

Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) in that stupid sweater.
Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) in that stupid sweater.

The weakest part of the film is the last third. Near the end George and Kenny meet up and spend the night together. Kenny/Nicholas Hoult really brings the film down here, again because of the terrible acting. Although it’s not totally his fault, the film just starts to drag and you keep wondering when it will finally end. Especially that last shot, it drags on for an unnecessarily long time. I guess the film is a little too self-indulgent for its own good. What I do like about the ending is the image of Jim coming and kissing George as he lies there dying. It brings everything back full circle to the beginning of the film, when George kisses Jim in his dream. It even brought a little tear to my eye.
If I had to give this film an overall rating out of ten I would give it 8.5/10. I really like it visually and I think Colin Firth is brilliant. I also find it unique, both in its subject matter and in the way the story is conveyed onscreen. But there are some things (like Nicholas Hoult) that keep it from being an amazing classic. I would recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for a melancholy drama acted out in impeccable Tom Ford suits.

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