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.
The film is directed by Tom Ford, known to you, I’m sure, as a fashion designer, the face for some time of the newly-revived Gucci. Ford, self-conscious and preening on the red carpet, has always struck me as the epitome of an unlikeable metrosexual sensibility.
So initially my heart had sunk at the prospect of an over-produced, under-nourished piece of style fetishism. Certainly, there are moments when he has obviously reined in (or been forced to rein in) a strongly developed love of the look of things, of mid-century modernism and the way a jacket creases. The characters are all better looking than they would probably be, even in California. But these are quibbles. Ford’s entry into movie-making is genuinely impressive. The surfaces are there and they gleam, but they remain just that — surfaces. They never get in the way of what is an enormously detailed, humane exploration of the effect one life can have on another.
Above all however, the film’s power is down to Colin Firth. I have never quite understood the appeal of Firth, and his screen presence I generally find chilly and supercilious, wet-shirted or otherwise. But as George, he demonstrates the very essence of great film acting: he does so little, and conveys so much. There is no thrashing about, no wild gestures. It all happens beneath the skin. From the moment he constructs himself in the mirror first thing in the morning, to the brief, sweet connection he makes with his neighbour’s little girl, there isn’t a moment when you don’t believe him. The pain he endures, etched in his movements and the awkwardness of his social encounters, becomes equally unbearable for us to witness.
Or not, perhaps, for everybody. When I watched A Single Man, I was faced with the imminent death of one beloved. The critic who claims to be able to divorce himself from his own condition when considering the work before him is, I think, being dishonest. Our judgment is clouded just as much by happiness as by sadness. But perhaps it also means that we become more acutely aware of the fake and the fraudulent. The cinema is full of ersatz suffering, including much which one might once have considered nuanced and authentic. One becomes very alive to anything remotely near the truth. And that, in its way, gives us comfort.