Philip Ellis’s recent Vada post, ‘Has Gay Cinema Turned a Corner‘ stressed the general cultural poverty of gay cinema – with the exception of a few choice movies. In the case of the article, apart from Brokeback Mountain and Milk, there really isn’t a great deal out there. So on this note, it seemed fitting to look back at one of the highlights of the gay genre, Tom Ford’s 2009 drama, A Single Man. The film stands as one of the more accomplished homosexual movies, and often ranks healthily within ‘Top Gay Movies of All Time,’ lists; but what exactly makes a film like A Single Man a successful movie? And what role does the movie’s focus on sexuality play in its success?
The film, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name, follows English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) on what potentially, could be the last day of his life. Having recently lost his partner, architect Jim (Matthew Goode), George has become somewhat detached from the world around him. Unable to escape his crushing bereavement, he leaves a message on his answer phone announcing his plans to commit suicide at the close of the day. From here, the audience watch George go through the motions of his life with a few surprises on the way – a run in with smouldering James Dean lookalike Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a catch-up with old flame and close friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and a few unusual meets with eager student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), the latter serving as a kind of guardian angel threatening to sabotage George’s fatalist resolve.
A Single Man from the start is a beautiful movie to look at. Tom Ford, coming from the fashion world, crafts a glossy, magazine-esque movie which perfectly captures its 1960s setting. Everything looks wonderful and Ford is a surprisingly accomplished first time director. Certain elements, such as the alteration in colour saturation when George is happy (lips become redder, eyes brighter, skin warmer) which should come across as amateurish and intrusive, don’t. Though the film is somewhat choppy and episodic, it does manage to capture the sense of alienation and lonely, boring nothingness which is a staple of depression. A Single Man is a tragic look into bereavement, as George mourns his lover and continuously flashes back to their time together. The audience really do get a sense of the love George felt for Jim and the isolation he feels at being a gay man in the 60s, unable to truly connect with anyone.
Colin Firth is fantastic in the movie – coming across as weary, world-torn, but with a great romantic, tragic, and at times joyous edge threatening to burst out of his apathy. It’s a wonderfully lonely, endearing performance and it’s no wonder Firth was nominated for the Oscar. Moore appears in one scene, but again is a stand-out, managing to portray a great sense of old companionship and friendly history with our lead man, but tinged with a sense of never really quite understanding him either. Hoult, fresh at this time from Skins, is a glowing, attractive presence bursting with energy and enthusiasm. The character is perhaps a little too broad, a figure of plot purposes more than anything else, but as a representative of George’s salvation, and the potential joy to be found in life, the character works.
In terms of sexuality, the movie’s strength comes from its quiet maturity. Some have criticised A Single Man for being too tame, finding it disappointing that an openly gay director such as Ford would make a movie about a gay man without showing anything sexual. It’s true that nothing sexual occurs on screen and easy to see how some would find this insulting, but this really isn’t the kind of movie which such imagery would suit. A Single Man is a quiet, restrained and older movie, nostalgic more than anything, with homosexuality used more as a means of alienation for the lead man than to make a statement. The film does benefit from its restraint with Hoult’s Kenny, whose sexuality is debatable. The character’s ambiguity generates a great deal of sexual tension when on screen. Throughout the movie, the strength is in the understated – Jim haunts the film through flashbacks and we really get a sense that George loved him, and that’s where the movie works as gay cinema; it’s a love story between two people who just happen to be men.
By switching the focus to the strength of their relationship, as opposed to its sexuality, Ford makes a stronger movie. The best gay movies – Brokeback Mountain, Weekend, and A Single Man – work because the homosexuality is almost an after-thought. The core thrust comes from the central relationship, with additional gay societal issues standing as side themes. The relationship has to come before everything else for the movie to truly work, and this is where gay movies with more of a political or social agenda fall down; their focus is wrong. The best gay movies are love stories first, where the drama comes from the passion between two leads who just happen to be homosexual. The characters have to be the beating, feeling heart of the movie.
A Single Man is an interesting movie, well acted and well directed by Tom Ford, with some nice directorial flourishes. It’s primarily a look into loss and depression, with hints at the hidden joys in life, and in gay cinema terms, strong in its casual and mature portrayal of sexuality. A Single Man earns its place as one of the better movies in the gay genre; a tragic and powerful love story sure to stick with you.