I wanted to see this movie because of Colin Firth, though I wasn’t crazy about the notion of a sad, mopey Firth when I like him awkward and silly as in Love Actually and the Bridget Jones movies. But his performance in A Single Man (limited release, Dec. 11) proves he’s a first-rate actor who can make grief not only watchable but compelling.
Set in 1961 and based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Man deals with college professor George Falconer’s (Firth) struggle to cope with the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. The whole movie takes place on the day George decides to commit suicide. We see him putting his affairs in order and internally saying goodbye to his students and best friend Charly (Julianne Moore). Ironically, as he prepares to die, he becomes more alive, taking in details about his surroundings he hadn’t bothered to absorb during his grief-stricken stupor.
And that’s about it as far as plot goes. Being a fan of plot-driven stories, I was greatly surprised I wasn’t bored by some tedious navel-gazing. Most of the credit goes to Firth, who’s in every scene and holds my attention in all of them. He pulls off the difficult act of covering up feelings you suspect are roiling inside George, but he doesn’t bury them so deeply that the character becomes inaccessible. You can see his thoughts as they flit behind his eyes, the mental screams he’d like to release. For all his graceful suffering, George should bring Firth his first Oscar nomination.
Moore is also impressive—is that news to anyone? She plays a woman in mid-life crisis, feeling worthless because her husband and son have left her and her looks are fading (she’s still gorgeous to me). As strong as her performance is, though, I’ve seen better from Moore—in The Hours, for example. If she does get an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, she has no chance (no one does) of beating Mo’Nique for Precious.
The biggest surprise here is Nicholas Hoult as a conflicted student of George’s who slowly awakens the older man to feelings he thought he no longer had. Hoult is so impossibly pretty with his golden hair, flirty baby blues, and pink pout, I was shocked to realize he’s the same actor who played Marcus,
the plump, awkward kid who pestered Hugh Grant in About a Boy. Well, he’s all grown up and ungainly no more.
First-time director and co-screenwriter, Tom Ford, known primarily for his work as a fashion designer for Gucci, knows a thing or two about beauty. All his actors are ridiculously good-looking and he made sure you know it. It got to be a bit much after a while; I actually chuckled when the camera zoomed in for the umpteenth time on Hoult’s and Firth’s naked bodies floating in slo-mo in the ocean, or lingered on a starlet’s bee-stung lips exhaling cigarette smoke seductively.
Ford said during the post-Variety-screening Q & A (more on that below) he wanted a Bernard Herrmann-esque score as homage to the composer known for his work in Hitchcock movies, but the plaintive strings are too overpowering for such an introspective film. Ford needn’t try so hard; he has potential as a filmmaker and was smart enough to cast superb actors who added class to a project that could’ve been dismissible.
When Ford showed up for the Q & A, he was soft-spoken, articulate and unexpectedly vulnerable. He told a lot of personal stories which he said informed the movie. Some details:
- He first read the book 25 years ago when he was living in West Hollywood and working as an actor.
- George didn’t want to kill himself in the novel but Ford added that plot point because of a suicide in his family.
- Firth originally turned down the film so Ford cast another actor. When that actor dropped out 3 weeks before production, Ford flew to London, pitched Firth personally instead of going through his rep and this time Firth said yes.
- The film was shot in 21 days, with only 3 of rehearsal. Ford simply had Firth watch a clip of Bill Clinton denying he’d done certain things to Monica Lewinsky, then told Firth to have George cover up his emotions like that.
- In a scene where George is supposed to chastely kiss Charly, Firth wouldn’t stop kissing Moore, resulting in several unusable takes. Ford had to keep reminding Firth he was playing a gay man.
Nerd verdict: Man is imperfect but Firth is impeccable