dir: Tom Ford
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You may not know who Christopher Isherwood was, or care, or know who Tom Ford is, or care. If you’re a woman, then odds are you know who Colin Firth is, and, depending on your age, you’ve thought he was dreamy ever since he played Darcy in thirteen or fourteen different variations on the role from Pride and Prejudice.
After watching this flick I’d wonder if you care any more about anything anywhere, since it plays out like the longest, tamest, gayest cologne commercial you’ve ever seen. Every scene is set designed and framed to within an inch of its life, and the performances, especially by Colin Firth, and Matthew Goode, as the central couple, are note-perfect.
But I’m sorry to say I walked away from this with barely anything having registered.
The love that dare not speak its name, but these days proclaims itself from the rooftops would seem to be the central premise, since the flick is set in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but really, it’s just about love. It’s about loving someone, and losing them after 16 blissful years together, and not being sure how to or whether to carry on.
The love that not only heals and elevates us, but that also hollows us out with its loss.
George (Firth) is a meticulous, and incredibly fussy, college professor who lives in the fussiest goddamn house in California, in the early sixties. His life partner has recently died, and George no longer seems to be able to care enough about maintaining the façade that life is worth living. We watch as he fussily goes about preparing all the kinds of things overly considerate and compulsive obsessive individuals would (we presume) when they plan to end their own lives.
Suicide is a very horrifying and serious topic to me, having lost a few people to its siren call, so it’s something I take seriously even when watching films and such. There’s a wrenching quality to it for me, usually, but the way this film treats it is probably right, with a very light touch. It even goes so far as to try to extract laughs out of the premise, perhaps ill-advisedly.
Even though we spend the day with George as he takes care of his preparations, we get to see reasons why he feels he has to (the flashbacks to his domestic bliss), we see why he feels compelled to (much of the world as he sees it, or when we view him, is drained of its colour, as if his depression is bleeding his world of life), and why he shouldn’t (practically everyone he knows or meets adores him). And when he starts meeting particularly hot boys the world itself seems to bloom.
I don’t doubt that first-time director, long-time fashion designer and life-long gay man Tom Ford has a deep, personal connection to this material and to this story. He clearly, despite his what I would have thought would be inexperience, was able to get across to Firth exactly how he wanted the character played, because Firth’s portrayal is superb. It’s truly a great performance, so perfectly modulated, so keen and non-showy. It’s sublime, but that doesn’t make the flick any more engaging or interesting because of it, which is really strange.
You usually associate great performances with great movie experiences, or at least times when a great role for someone etches itself into your brain. But in this case it doesn’t leave much of an impression.
I’m not sure why. It’s beautifully put together, visually potent, the music is wonderful, the editing is sharp and effective, everything looks sublime and transcendent, and yet I feel like it was a waste of time.
What bugs me the most about the flick is the ending, I think. There’s something about the ending, which I won’t spoil for the four people on the planet that would actually think it’s a spoiler, which makes me feel like it’s a cheat that undoes all the investment we put into the central character of George.
He’s a smart, sharp-dressing, affable man who deals honestly, openly, lovingly with everyone he meets on this, ostensibly, his last day on earth. He speaks of feeling as if he’s never really been understood by his students, from whom he has begun to sense a certain bovine indifference, but this could be symptomatic of his depression. And yet the student he speaks to, who glows (the colour maximisation is off the charts in this goddamn film), not only gets him, but understands him beyond what he’s trying to reveal or hide with his words. The golden student (Nicholas Hoult) becomes the embodiment of everything George still longs for that isn’t intimately associated with his dead lover.
But he associates everything with Jim (Matthew Goode), and there are reminders everywhere, of course. Everything, no matter how he gets distracted from his course of action, leads to a convenient (for us) flashback where he remembers special moments between the two. There’s the sweet moment when they get together just after the war, or when they’re stretched out on the rocks like they’re in a Calvin Klein commercial, or when they’re just sitting around and reading, as Jim intimates “I’m so happy right now that if I died, it’d be okay. And, by the way, I’m going on a trip soon. I’m sure I’ll be back in no time.”
George's interactions with a young Spanish hustler (Jon Kortajarena), who looks more like James Dean than James Dean does, or with the student, are all supposed to remind George, and us, that he has so much to live for, but I’m not sure if that’s the net result. Surely the reminder that, from a grieving gay man’s perspective, the fact that there are other hot gay guys out there is a pretty simplistic solution to one’s heartrending pain?
Unless of course we see that through the Kenny character, it’s not just the possibility of hot gay sex that rekindles his interest in life: it’s the impact that this particular person has because of the way they see life, and perhaps how he makes George feel.
There’s a coyness to much of the proceedings that is at odds with what you would think, which is hardly a problem. There’s many an image celebrating the beauty of the male form, but it’s by far tamer even than the recent Sacha Baron Cohen assault on human dignity called Bruno, and I’ve got no complaints there. It’s not for me to judge whether such stories are obligated to have hot guy-on-guy action to be credible, but then if the story had been one of a woman lamenting the loss of the love of her life, being a man, I wouldn’t have considered it obligatory to have scenes where they pretend to fuck either.
Speaking of fucking, Julianne Moore is in this I think only because a) she’s a great actress, b) she’s a hot redhead, and c) she starred in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, from which this film’s colour palette has clearly been lifted. Her role is something of a thankless one, as one of George’s oldest friends and a determined faghag of the highest order. There are even scenes where, miserable and raging in a Joanna Lumley – Patsie from Absolutely Fabulous kind of way, she tries to convince George that everything would have been all right in both of their lives if he’d just hadn’t loved cock so much, in between trying to, I’m not sure, seduce him? It was certainly weird.
There’s an interesting allusion in the story, which is from the book, where Isherwood / George parallels the status of gays in America in the 1960s to how Ralph Ellison defined African-Americans in Invisible Man: as ever-present but invisible, with mainstream society almost trying to will them out of existence by ignoring them as pointedly as possible. It’s not belaboured, but it is interesting. I’m not sure the civil rights movement would have agreed, but, there it is. There’s also an interesting discussion regarding Aldous Huxley, and the likelihood of whether he was anti-Semitic or not.
The interesting part of the discussion, which doesn’t carry through anywhere else, is that George puts across to his bored students that the Nazis did indeed have a reason to hate the Jews, and to persecute them.
I hear something like that, and my first response is “Uh oh…”
But then he follows it up by saying whilst they had a reason, it was a completely irrational and insane reason, bolstered with and by fear.
It’s hard not to see that as a commentary on the homophobia that still pervades the various arguments regarding gay men and women in the military, or wanting to get married, and I’m not talking about the 1960s.
These points do not, for me, a coherent flick make. The ending still undoes much of the good work that all the actors and all those fussy set designers are responsible for.
In the end all I’m left with a strong, positive impression of Colin Firth as a great actor, who was able to convey all the subtle nuances of this character without ever resorting to camp or tired clichés, but nothing else about the flick. He’s able to get across almost unimaginable grief just with his face, in scenes that are quite profound in their simplicity.
Still, it’s now almost completely gone from my head, like a puff of smoke; as ephemeral, as ungraspable. Maybe that was as it should be.
7 times I thought some of those colour schemes were trying to forcibly detach my retinas out of 10
“Just get through the goddamn day” – isn’t that what we all mutter to ourselves getting on public transport every morning? – A Single Man.