Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Single Man (Movie Review)

Julianne Moore could bring back the Twist, the sixties' dance craze, with her elegant wriggle in A Single Man.  Hers has much more erotic traction than Travolta and Thurman's little homage to Chubby Checker in Pulp Fiction.  Of course, Colin Firth mucks it up a bit by joining in, but only because her solo dance, to Booker T and the MG's "Green Onions," is so much better than I ever remember the Twist having been before.

A Single Man, based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel and directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, his first effort at directing, is composed of many small moments of this sort.  In fact, we are directly told at the end of the movie that life's purpose and energy derive not from the big events of the day (in this setting--i.e. southern California in the early 1960s--the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation), but the small personal moments--the scent of a puppy, the curve of eyeliner, a shared glance between men--which, added together, are really what make life more or less meaningful and worthwhile.

The movie begins and ends with a death.  The first death is the impetus for the chain of almost random events we see portrayed in the film, shot with an elegant eye to color and composition by cinematographer Eduard Grau.  Its depiction of the era is comparable to the self-conscious sense of style in the television series Mad Men (in fact, we hear the voice of Mad Men's star Jon Hamm over the telephone at the beginning of this movie).   Grau and Ford vary the saturation and intensity of the color expressionistically, to portray characters' levels of vitality and sensuous involvement in the world.

Some could, with reason, complain that the movie is rather like 101 men's cologne commercials strung together--it does in fact possess a high sense of style that occasionally works against the emotions of the characters, but before we see this as a flaw born of the director's background in fashion, let's remember that Stanley Kubrick always used style to undercut emotional involvement in his films and the principal character here, played by Colin Firth, is somebody whose isolation (through grief and his homosexuality in 1960s America) and his ironic wit and usual British reserve discourage sympathy, anyway.

The last death is not exactly the death that the film leads us to expect--and it comes as sort of a shock--but it is the avenue through which the protagonist is able to articulate his discovery about the importance of life, until then crowded out by his grief over the loss of his lover.

The film's artsiness takes nothing away from the performances.  Colin Firth gives his best performance ever, as the grieving college English professor.  And Julianne Moore, besides twisting with such style, gives her most interesting performance since Safe--all the more remarkable because Moore has made a career out of choosing interesting and daring projects to work in.  Here she plays the protagonist's friend, who struggles with her own sense of loss.

The film's "pretty boys"--Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, and Jon Kortajarena--are, yes, very pretty, but Ford, Isherwood, and they do not make the usual harsh Judeo-Christian judgment on beauty that we might expect in a Hollywood film--that is, they are not vapid, manipulative, self-centered, superficial, and unworthy of our respect.

Rounding out the cast of characters that Firth encounters, again with apparent randomness, are a number of familiar television actors--Lee Pace, Gennifer Godwin, and Erin Daniels--whose appearances here are something more than cameos, but rather fully rounded characters that this film just so happens not to be about ... or let me correct myself, it is "about" them, since the film ultimately concerns our connection with people who initially strike us as peripheral to our own personal dramas and crises.

Our "deep" involvement with casual strangers--co-workers, tricks, neighbors--is the spiritual center of Isherwood's novel and Ford's film.  However much we choose to rank our relationships with strangers, one-night stands, acquaintances, friends, and lovers, creating hierarchies based on our sense of self-importance, it is in fact people we hardly know--whose names we may not actually know or remember--who make the largest impressions on our innermost self and whose values, fears, and willingness to reach out (or not) shape our individual lives at least as much as free will or chance does.

Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois says famously, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."  That kindness--taken seriously, and not as neurotic prattle--is the subject of (the ironically titled, it turns out) A Single Man.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to have to rent this one when it's on DVD... two of my favorite people and an interesting story. Wonder if it will hit RedBox?



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