Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cinema: Review - 'A Single Man'

Regular readers of my cinema reviews will know I like to judge a film by its audience. I realise that a first weekend crowd says more about the marketing of a film than the film itself, but it gives me something to do while the adverts are on and the house lights are up. I'm deeply suspicious of any movie that attracts people in groups of more than two. The movie theatre is not a social setting, but one for quiet contemplation. 'A Single Man' suffered no groups. Even better, although the cinema was unusually full for an early afternoon showing, the singletons and couples in attendance spaced themselves out by a geometric formula that meant three never had to sit together.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of grey haired couples in attendance. This is a movie with a resolutely queer aesthetic and the fact that it appeals to the middle-aged and middle-class demographic of middle England shows how far society has come in the last ten or fifteen years in its tolerance of, and interest in,  difference, sexual or otherwise. Those alone were of both genders and various persuasions, judging by visual cues alone. Tom Ford also drew his own crowd. I am largely ignorant of fashion designers and who they appeal to but from the elderly ladies tottering around in furs and elegant young men in polo necks and cashmere overcoats, I'd say his customers are well-heeled if somewhat ditzy (female) or metropolitan homosexuals of the Cameroonian persuasion (male).

Anyway, my companions in darkness kept me entertained until the trailers were run and beyond. When the film started, I thought maybe they'd made an error in the projection room and reeled an episode of 'Mad Men' by mistake. Not that I'd have minded - I'm a 'Mad Men' fan and would love to see it on the big screen, it is probably the best designed and costumed TV show ever. I've since found out that programme and film share a design team as well as location in time (early sixties) and space (America), the difference being 'Mad Men' is east coast, 'A Single Man' west. 'Mad Men' has actually made me rethink my attitude to the sixties which I now consider to have been spoilt by The Beatles, not made by them. Were it nor for those Liverpudlian half-wits, the music of the decade would have been jazz, the look skinny suits and skinny ties for the men, cocktail dresses for the girls, and everyone would have lived in modernist houses of wood and glass, their drugs of choice being scotch and cigarettes and their favoured cars built like airplanes and usually found parked outside country clubs. 

'A Single Man' is an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Isherwood in which an English college professor relocated to California is living his last day on earth. In mourning for his younger lover, prohibited from even attending his funeral by a family in denial, George Falconer (played by Colin Firth) has decided on a meticulously planned exit strategy. Whether you empathise with his predicament will most likely define your response to the film. He is a man nostalgic about the past, honourable in the present but with no interest in the future. If he was a creative, that is no longer apparent. Even his teaching has lost its sense of purpose, most of the students aping beatnik disinterest. His only friend is a louche female lush also in exile from London society, played with indeterminate accent but charming zest by Julianne Moore

He retains a fatal attraction to the adolescent male, and if this trait of the middle-aged loner disturbs, you'd best stay away. A brief encounter with a Hispanic hustler is never consummated , but the scenario is clearly familiar to him. The one student who is drawn into his orbit and ultimately - however briefly - saves his life is played by Nicholas Hoult, best known in this country for his role as Tony Stonem in the first two series of Skins, the one actor from that car-chase-come-car-crash of youth TV you can tip for an acting career. (I commend Kaya Scodelario - who plays his sister Effy, and is the key character in the fourth more-miss-than-hit season - to a future as a model, but that's another story.) If this were a contemporary campus drama and the scenario was straight rather than gay, I suspect we'd have been served up with a feast of tabloid shock and broadsheet moral analysis, but boy love is okay so long as its contained in costume drama, which the movie undoubtedly is, albeit of an era some of its viewers have lived through. Christopher Isherwood was renowned for his taste in pretty youths - first in the decadent Weimar Republic, then liberal California - and it is to Colin Firth's credit that his portrayal incorporates the peccadillo into a rounded study of a complex character.

Tom Ford is new to film direction and this credible and creditable debut hangs on Firth's performance who you stay with ultimately because of his English decency, exemplified by the thoughtfulness expressed in his preparations for end-of-life and the genuine care and interest he shows in the futures of others even as he gives up on his own. It won't appeal to a family audience - family life is portrayed as banal, children curious monsters, heterosexual attraction almost incomprehensible and generally for show - but it has already broken out of the niche of gay cinema and found a wider public, and makes thoughts of suicide seem almost life-affirming, coming-to-terms-with-life being a prelude to coming-to-terms-with-death.

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