A day in the life

Colin Firth has a great role in a drama both daz­zling and mov­ing, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IMAG­INE YOU were dragged off the street, plonked be­fore this ex­traor­di­nary film and asked to iden­tify the celebrity – hith­erto suc­cess­ful in an­other field – who had di­rected it. You would not, I’d wa­ger, plump for Vin­nie Jones or Delia Smith. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t sug­gest Tom Ford ei­ther, but when told that A Sin­gle Man was by the pres­ti­gious fash­ion de­signer, you’d man­age to avoid faint­ing dead away.

Based on a land­mark 1964 novel by Christo­pher Ish­er­wood, one of sev­eral key gay artists who left Bri­tain for Cal­i­for­nia in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury, the film fol­lows

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Ge­orge (Colin Firth), a mid­dleaged aca­demic, as, over one limpid LA day, he at­tempts to cope with the re­cent death of his part­ner in a car crash. He makes small talk with his but­toned-up neigh­bours. He lec­tures on Al­dous Hux­ley to a largely un­in­ter­ested class­room. He knocks back cock­tails with a boozy fe­male friend (Ju­lianne Moore), and – in a lovely mo­ment of clumsy release – they dance badly to Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. More wor­ry­ingly, Ge­orge buys a box of bul­lets and con­sid­ers the least messy way of shoot­ing him­self.

Tom Ford was never likely to show his griev­ing pro­tag­o­nist wear­ing a stained bathrobe and eat­ing spaghetti hoops from the can, but the or­dered beauty of Ge­orge’s sad life re­ally stops the heart. Ev­ery shirt seems to taunt the hero with its daz­zling crisp­ness. Cars have an al­most com­i­cal straight-from-the-show­room gleam, and the di­rec­tor’s de­ci­sion to fade from washed-out hues to more vivid colours as Ge­orge’s mood changes has a pleas­antly hyp­notic ef­fect.

The fetishi­sa­tion of early 1960s style in Mad Men ( A Sin­gle Man is set dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis) seems some­what half-hearted by com­par­i­son. Watch in awe as one brightly coloured pen­cil sharp­ener takes on the qual­ity of a puls­ing icon.

The very gor­geous­ness of the film, bol­stered by ref­er­ences to Hitch­cock and An­to­nioni, of­ten threat­ens to work against its own sup­posed se­ri­ous­ness. In­deed, if Colin Firth (a de­serv­ing Os­car nom­i­nee) were not on hand to de­liver the per­for­mance of a life­time, A Sin­gle Man could very well have ended up as an ex­tended com­mer­cial for Tom Ford the man and Tom Ford the la­bel. (Note, for in­stance, how, when the film turns to monochrome, you in­stinc­tively be­gin think­ing of per­fume.)

Watch­ing Firth, it be­comes clear that, mis­used too of­ten over a busy ca­reer, he has rarely been of­fered char­ac­ters whose depths are worth con­ceal­ing. Em­ployed on card­board ciphers with no in­ner life, that sub­tle un­der­play­ing oc­ca­sion­ally tends to­wards wood­en­ness. Here, Firth is in­vited to re­veal hid­den tur­moil through barely per­cep­ti­ble fur­rows, in­cli­na­tions and ex­ha­la­tions. The re­sult is des­per­ately mov­ing and ren­ders Ge­orge’s one mo­ment of to­tal col­lapse – the aw­ful phone call dur­ing which he hears of his part­ner’s death – al­most in­de­cent in its in­tru­sive­ness.

The Ish­er­wood novel, un­der­stand­ably pop­u­lar dur­ing the Aids years, has been seen as a defin­ing text in gay lib­er­a­tion. At a time when even many sym­pa­thetic com­men­ta­tors viewed ho­mo­sex­u­als as ei­ther tragic fig­ures or as ex­otic, un­se­ri­ous lightweights, A Sin­gle Man ar­gued for the or­di­nar­i­ness of their emo­tions and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Per­haps, by mak­ing his film so fan­tas­ti­cally de­li­cious, Ford has slightly be­trayed that legacy. A lit­tle part of the viewer does think: how could any­body be so mis­er­able while wear­ing that suit, while liv­ing in that gor­geous John Laut­ner house, while so­cial­is­ing with that naughty ver­sion of Ju­lianne Moore?

Well, Mr Ford fi­nanced A Sin­gle Man him­self and he can, thus, con­struct what­ever gilded cara­pace he chooses. The film is an hon­est re­flec­tion of its cre­ator’s sen­si­bil­i­ties and, for all its con­tra­dic­tions, it never fails to take the breath away. Don’t miss it.

Sex and the sin­gle guy: Colin Firth and Ju­lianne Moore in A Sin­gle Man

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