Grown-ups: Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in "A Single Man"
Grief is the price we pay for love," was the Queen's message to the American people after 9/11. That seems exactly right. But in everyday life, many delay the final accounting. Some put off payment altogether. Others have the courage to look at the bill square-on, but find that for them, the cost is simply too great to bear.
One such is George, the single man of the title of Christopher Isherwood's short novel, which has just been adapted for the screen. George, played by Colin Firth, is an English college lecturer in early Sixties, pre-counter-cultural California, a place of effortless golden-limbed sunniness. But he makes his way through this world like a dead man walking. Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, has been killed in a road accident and he now operates like a human being only on the outside. Grief has hollowed him out.
A Single Man (on release 12 February) follows him over the space of a day: his fastidious early morning grooming routine; his journey to work; the pleasantries he exchanges with neighbours; and his conversations with Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his best friend from earlier London days. Thoughts and memories of Jim come in flashback. The only distinctive thing to happen is a series of encounters with one of his young students (Nicholas Hoult), a boy who senses that there is something wrong about his teacher, something that might shed light on his own emotional confusion. This being the early Sixties, little is spelt out between them. George lives with his emptiness in secret.
Rereading those paragraphs above — gay relationships, death, suppressed mourning — I can see how this film might seem to hold little for a wide audience. That doesn't stop it from being a remarkably powerful, beautiful one. Being gay myself has much to do with this. I have watched thousands of movies and even now, in 2009, it comes as an utter, blessed relief for me to see one depicting a relationship between men that doesn't just revolve around the obstacles against a youthful "coming out", or a death from Aids, or an addiction to dancing and shopping. A Single Man is an adult film, George, Jim and Charlotte are grown-ups and the themes which give rise to the story — the disappointments of age, the nature of love, how one continues when the most valued part of one's life has been ripped out of it — are of the sort which our infantilised society increasingly refuses even to acknowledge, let alone discuss.