When George looks at his reflection in the mirror he sees not himself but the ‘expression of a predicament’. It is all about appearance – how one appears to the world around us. Few people have an eye for design like Tom Ford and he perfectly realises this early 1960s suburban world, living in fear. This is the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and so most live in dread of a Russian missile. But they also live in fear of any minority, not just the Reds but also those who ‘wear loafers’, as George does. The term ‘homosexuality’ looms but is never said, as if that way it does not exist. And in this world, where the young fear there is no tomorrow, we have George who is confident that, for him, there will indeed be no tomorrow. After failing to come to terms with the loss of his lover of 16 years, Joe, George has reached a decision and A Single Man follows him through his countdown.
Colin Firth is impeccable as George and it is good to see him the centre of a film. The attention to detail is stunning as George constructs himself just as Tom Ford constructs the world around him. The perfect wooden glass house, the beautifully kept car, George’s impeccable suits and his pristine white shirts, his memories, and the interchanging of colour and grey as some things fade and other things come back to the front of the mind.
George isn’t alone in having to reconstruct himself every day. His closest friend Charley (Julianne Moore) likewise has to build herself with make up, clothes, hair, booze. Her best days are in the past, not in LA, where the film is set, but back in London, where she and George had a fling. Julianne Moore is excellent, as she is in just about everything, and her English accent is just great.
After all is said and done, for me, A Single Man was perfectly executed – it was visually stunning and very clever and the leads excelled. However, the grand design of it all, its self-consciousness and its ceaseless pessimism left me feeling entirely unmoved for George. I’m someone who loves to immerse myself in emotional movies and it doesn’t take much in a movie to set me off. My favourite movies are those that involve me. At the end of A Single Man I felt nothing but relief, and most of it was for me, not George. I felt that this was a film where the audience was probably not much in the filmmaker’s mind. I found myself working through a mental shopping list of things to buy on the way home. Not a good sign. And strange for a film with this much ostensible emotion that it failed to pass through the screen into the auditorium.
There was some humour – the lady next to me was laughing hysterically at George’s ineffectual attempts to shoot himself. I didn’t find it so rib-ticklingly funny. Charley and George shared some lighter moments, in between accusing each other of living a pointless existence. I would have liked to have seen more of the family next door – the daughter with her gladiator goldfish, for instance.
George and Jim had been lovers for 16 years but, watching the moments with them together on screen, they didn’t act that way to me. I would also suggest that skinny dipping in a choppy Pacific at midnight is not the best way to prove to yourself that you’re alive.
This was a film that appealed purely to intellect and that is only one part of the brain that should be engaged by a cinema experience. I felt that whatever happened to George during the course of this day there could be only one end. And that was indeed what happened. It was a relentless journey, lit on occasion by some pleasing cinematography, set design and acting. I saw A Single Man at a ‘serious’ cinema, one where normally audiences will wait to the very end of the credits before making a move. Not with A Single Man. The instant this film finished, before almost the very first credit, the mass rush to the pub next door was on.