Rating: 3 out of 5
Having seen Colin Firth play gay characters twice before – but who’s counting – in Where the Truth Lies and Mamma Mia!, one can safely say he’s an able actor when it comes to persuading viewers he is of a different sexual persuasion.
Fashion designer Tom Ford, of Gucci fame, knew this of course when he reached out to Firth to play the protagonist in the film that Ford was directing from his own adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel.
By now, almost every critic worth his salt is acclaiming Firth’s sizable role as a gay college professor who decides to end his life after struggling with the abrupt loss of his long-time partner. While Firth is eminently watchable, and clearly in good form, one does not consider this his best-ever turn.
And while Ford’s maiden film, which he also invested in, looks simply marvellous, as one would expect from a man of his expertise, from the sets to the actors and their styling, there is much artifice layered upon the art – the style is there, but does it obscure the substance?
A Single Man charts a single day of a man’s life, that of California college professor George Falconer (Firth), to which we the audience are privy to his inner suffering, his world-weariness and abject loneliness, as he deals with the recent loss of his handsome partner (Matthew Goode) in a car accident.
Through flashbacks, we see how the middle-aged George had fallen in love, and how his imagined 'ever after' of bliss was torn asunder. He awakens each day to a living nightmare, life without him.
A consummate actor who has shown versatility over the years, despite a tendency to be cast in stiff-upper-lip, upper-crust roles, Firth predictably excels here. The sense of panic and desperation plaguing George is keenly felt.
Julianne Moore, putting on a barely passable British accent, is not quite Firth’s peer in playing George’s old friend Charley, a vain, aging, hard-drinking, hard-smoking woman who has not bolted home to London because she still holds a torch for George.
Moore may look the part, but she never fully inhabits her vapid character. The same could be said of Nicholas Hoult, all grown up now since he was last widely seen opposite Hugh Grant in About A Boy. He plays a student who develops a fixation with George, his lecturer, convinced that they are kindred spirits.
Hoult has many lines, and a generous role, but his put-on accent is distracting, and despite what his character Kenny says, he is an enigmatic, somewhat frustrating character. His interactions with Firth rarely spark into life, even if some of their scenes together are fraught with sexual tension.
He represents what could be for George, who unbeknownst to Charley and Kenny, is planning to end this one day of his life with suicide. Kenny is a whiff of fresh air, new life if George chooses/is able to breathe again.
One could look at Ford’s film as a delectable examination in misery, of coming to terms with grief as a gay man, and an arrival to the crossroads of life and death – to give up or love again, even if the love may be inferior and less resplendent.
For all its stylish devices, some of which can come off as clichéd and tired, or brilliant, depending on the eyes of the beholder, A Single Man feels oddly unsatisfying. A lingering sense of ennui pervades long after the end credits roll, such that even Firth’s fine performance does not feel like a triumph.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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