Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.
As a heterosexual man, my relationship to queer cinema is hardly unique. In some respects, my relationship with it is similar to the one I have with the cinema of any demographic group of which I am not a member. Queer cinema isn’t telling my story, but it’s telling a story that I can try to understand and relate to. A Single Man is certainly not the definitive film of the classification/genre, but it’s a fine example. It works not because it’s specifically a story about a homosexual man but because it’s a story of a man who happens to be homosexual. That distinction is important and makes all the difference. The film speaks to the gay experience, but speaks equally to the human experience.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) is an ex-patriate Brit teaching at a college in Los Angeles. When the film begins, it has been eight months since the death of Jim (played in flashback by Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years. Since Jim’s accidental death in a car accident, George has more or less lived on autopilot. All of A Single Man takes place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when homosexuality was one of the more serious social sins. This reality means that George and Jim have kept their relationship a secret from all but the closest and most trusted friends. It’s also what prevents George from being able to attend Jim’s funeral, since Jim’s family does not want him there.
A Single Man takes place in a single 24-hour period in what George has planned to be the last day of his life. We experience the various parts of his day with him, and we slowly come to realize that he is putting everything in order so that his death will cause as little trouble as possible for those around him. He has organized everything: the suit he wants to be buried in, all of the arrangements, and taking care of the various people in his life before what he plans will be a suicide by pistol at some point during the day.
Throughout the day, we get glimpses of George’s past and what he sees as his dismal and bleak present. He teaches a class and instead of lecturing on the topic of Huxley talks instead about fear and how fear controls us. It’s an interesting scene, because it’s evident to us that he’s talking about society’s fear and loathing of homosexuals at the time, but it’s also evident that most of the class takes this as concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He also spends the evening with Charlotte (Julianne Moore), an old friend and former partner. Charlotte is interested in restarting her relationship with George, something that he is not interested in at all. Charlotte is in many ways as tragic a figure as George. She feels discarded by the world. Her marriage has ended, her child has grown up, and she is now alone and marginalized as a woman in 1960s America. George is her chance at relevance, something he’s not able to give her.
There is also an interlude with one of George’s students named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who seems to have no sense of the teacher/student boundary. It’s evident that Kenny is also gay and interested in George. The two take a nude swim in the ocean together and eventually retire back to George’s place.
I’m not going to discuss the ending except to say that it’s both appropriate and infuriating. I get exactly why the film ends the way it does, but I don’t like the ending at all. There’s a certain sense of beauty to what happens in the last few minutes of the film, but based on everything that we’ve been through, it almost feels like a cheat. We’re offered a hint of what will happen earlier in the film, but it still comes out of nowhere. As much as the ending is thematically appropriate, even beautiful in its own way, it irritated me to no end.
The centerpiece of the film is naturally Colin Firth’s performance, but he’s aided by several solid performances around him. Matthew Goode is fine in his role, but he is not in the film much and appears entirely as a memory. There’s a sense of him being remembered more perfect than he may have been. In fact, his limited screen time is surprising, since the character of Jim casts such a long shadow over the entire film—it’s easy to remember him as being more of a presence than he actually is. Julianne Moore is great, of course, but it’s Julianne Moore and she always is. Nicholas Hoult is surprising in this role. There’s a part of him that looks almost artificial, but he pulls off an American accent well and he’s hard not to like.
It’s worth noting as well that even if the story weren’t interesting, the visuals are. This is a beautifully made film, and it’s scored exquisitely. George’s experience on this day are concerned with that—his experiences, and so the film lingers over small moments, savoring them just as George contemplates savoring particular experiences for the final time.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how I feel about A Single Man. It’s philosophically deep and presents interesting questions and ideas that speak to the gay experience of the 1960s, of today, and of human relationships in general. In a sense, the story scales up—it’s relevant not just to a specific community or demographic but also to anyone in any relationship who has suffered a loss. But that ending is a slap in the face.
Why to watch A Single Man: An important story, and Colin Firth’s performance.
Why not to watch: The ending will piss you off.