A Single Man is one of my very favorite movies. That judgment is based on the one time I watched it years ago, and it made me so sad that I didn’t watch it again until now, when I decided a column about queer pop culture couldn’t do without it. It’s from 2009, and Colin Firth got his first Oscar nomination for it.
The movie follows George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English professor perhaps in his fifties, whose longtime partner Jim has died. The movie, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is set in the sixties. It always turns out everything I love is based on or in the 60s… But the point is that even though George and Jim were together for sixteen years, they were in an open closet. Even though people know George is gay, it’s that sort of knowledge that is never to be acknowledged. George’s grief has to not only be private, it has to be invisible.
The plot. For George, it’s both both an ordinary day, and anything but. There’s the flicker of heart pains in the first scene. The compliments he gives to people as he goes along. The way he cleans out his office before he goes home. The subtle propositions of a beautiful boy in George’s class. The separate incidents in this day.
And really, for George, one day isn’t just one day. In his grief time has become rather fluid for George, and the editing beautifully portrays that reality. The warmth of his life with Jim, cut with memories of when Jim died, cut with the emptiness and repetitive lostness of the present. And the way sometimes the present flushes with color when it reminds George of a memory — or just when he’s happy, when he’s conversing with other people. The present has a comparative clarity, but clarity isn’t always what you want, is it? Not where other people are concerned. At one point a coworker suggests that there’ll be no time for sentiment when the bombs hit, and George responds, “If there’s going to be a world with no time for sentiment, then it’s not a world I want to live in.”
I often mention A Single Man is one of the few movies that’s better than the book. The characters are more compelling, and the plot has stronger pacing, but it’s also just such a strongly visual and emotional experience. This movie is a movie and could be nothing else so successfully. If anything can be accomplished without words, it is. George and Jim’s beautiful house is just as much a character in the movie as anyone else… And the way George is show often shot through windows, through doors, through his glasses, through a glass. It’s beautiful. When there are words, like George’s lecture about fear of minorities in class, the surprise that words are present makes them that much more attention-grabbing. The one long conversation between George and Charlotte, his best friend and one-time lover, is just as striking.
I love how queer this movie is. I love the emotions between George and Jim. I get it without being told. I love the subtle signals of recognition when George meets other gay men. I love that when Jim asks George about Charley, George explains, “I sleep with women… but fall in love with men. I fell in love with you.” And that’s fine. I love that this is an entire movie about a gay man and his husband, and even though it’s a tragic movie, that is not a tragedy and that is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing terrifying, nothing other.
All this, from a director who doesn’t seem to have ever directed anything else ever. Tom Ford, a fashion designer. Unbelievable. And you know, I watch my share of indie movies, but I also deserve expensive queer movies that look beautiful and star Colin Firth. And I deserve mainstream queer movies that are real and emotional and unabashedly queer, where we’re not something added in or included for shock value. There aren’t many, but this is the best one. The very best.