Is it OK not to like A Single Man?


We finally got around to watching A Single Man.  I didn’t really like it.

I’m aware that I may be influenced by my suspicious attitude towards films about queer people which I feel have been made to appeal to predominantly heterosexual audiences, plus I really dislike the hypocrisy underlying the current trend in which we see heterosexual actors using gay characters to prove their acting chops while most gay actors remain unable to come out in Hollywood or risk playing gay roles themselves.

I was also very irritated to read a comment from Firth in an interview in which he said that the film wasn’t really about gay men but, rather, about the universal experience of grief.  That is such utter bull crap when the entire point that this film is making is that the context of a gay person’s grief in the 1960s was totally different to that of a heterosexual person’s grief.  There wouldn’t even be a story here if the characters weren’t gay because, if that was the case, George’s sorrow would have been acknowledged and he would have received sympathy and support.  What’s terrible in the story is not the grief itself, but the total disenfranchisement of George’s suffering and the fact that this occurs only because he and his partner are both men.  So shut up Colin!

However, I do think I am able to get beyond these reservations and appreciate the quality of a film but, while I admired A Single Man for its beautifully artistic direction, I still didn’t like it much, perhaps for the same reason I admired it.  The art seems to overwhelm the feeling.  One of the best scenes is one of the first when George (Colin Firth) gets the phone call that informs him about his partner’s sudden death in a car accident.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, but just as I was about to crumble, George ran over to his friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house and the soundtrack was muted, so we watch but not hear his grief.  Perhaps the symbolism is appropriate, if a little obvious – no one can hear his grief — but I found it distancing.  The film seemed to enact its own point here and doubly silence the grief.  There were a couple of other points where the symbolism jerked me out of the narrative – the bit where we see George walking against a crowd, quite literally.

The role demanded that Firth act alone for long sections of the film.  Colin Firth is a very good actor, but I really think he’s best when he’s playing off other people. I don’t think he’s tremendously good at being alone on screen and I didn’t find the scenes in which he wanders around looking bereaved entirely convincing or moving.  The best scenes were the ones in which he was acting with other people.

I don’t like Matthew Goode, the actor who played George’s partner, Jim.  He’s rather a bland, romantic-comedy-kind-of-actor and he’s always playing these smug, super-nice guys who irritate me.  I didn’t find him convincing as a gay man and didn’t believe in their relationship because  I had no real sense of what George had lost or of the life they’d built together.  Really, I think the role needed a stronger actor than Goode who could convey a lot about their relationship in a small amount of screen time.

I hated Julianne Moore in this film and thought her performance was pretty atrocious.  She appeared to be channelling Joanna Lumley’s Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and I honestly think that Lumley would have brought more nuance and feeling to the role.  Moore here seemed to be Oscar-hunting with a very artificial performance.  It was Julianne Moore in a big wig with that American actress “English accent” playing a role I don’t think she understood – little more than a caricature.  Mind you, I have to admit I haven’t liked Moore for a while.  I thought she was excellent in The Hours, but we re-watched Magnolia the other night and she played that part at exactly the same shrill pitch in every scene.  Compare her with Melora Walters’s incredible performance in that film and Moore comes across hammy and superficial to me.  Anyway, in A Single Man I didn’t believe her relationship with George at all and couldn’t see why George would be friends with her, although Firth was giving it his best shot.

Still, the story seemed to be taking place in a vacuum.  George and Jim didn’t appear to be part of a larger community.  George went to a gay bar, but there was no context.  Why was he there? Why was he in California? It did that thing that films about gay people often do of overlooking the fact that gay people belong to a subculture.  Where were his gay friends?

So I’m not sure if this is just me, but overall I felt a bit manipulated.  It’s lovely to look at and there are some excellent scenes, but it felt like a film in which the director and the actors all had their eyes firmly fixed on the Oscars rather than on creating something authentic.  I think the first part of the much simpler If These Walls could Talk 2 deals with the same issues with much more feeling and achieves a deeper impact.  Hmm although that might be because it’s about lesbians!

But, as I’ve seen a couple of reviewers note elsewhere, what this film should really remind us of is just how little we owe to people like George and Jim – the respectable, wealthy, middle-class gays who stayed in the closet in relative safety – and just how much we do owe to the far less “respectable” gay men and trans women who risked their necks and took on the police in the Stonewall riots.  This film made me even more grateful to them.

I’ve got the Christopher Isherwood novel on which the film was based on my bookshelf, so I’ll be interested to read that now and see how it compares to its adapatation.