A man planning his own death and a guardian angel keen to stop him make Tom’ Ford’s styiish A Single Man a very pre-Christmas classic indeed.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE?
Sometimes life happens like that. You come across a quality film you weren’t even looking for among the second-hand dvds in your local charity shop but as soon as you catch sight of its title, it demands you buy it. Except for some reason you don’t. But it nags at you so much that days later, you return to the store and the film’s in exactly the same place as you left it, so this time you do.
And then, because you’re so busy watching and researching Christmas films, you make a point of not viewing the charity divid. But it still niggles at you: when is it set, for goodness sake? So, on the 29th November during an afternoon spate of laptop goggling when the fairytale Labyrinth (Paul Bettany’s then unknown-wife-to-be, Jennifer Connelly so young) is swiftly followed by Jaws: The Revenge (in which a police officer is eaten alive by a shark at the very same time that carol singing children are wasselling too loud to hear the doomed man’s screams for help: my kind of Christmas movie scene), you at last get round to seeing A Single Man again, only to find that the opening scene is heralded by the date: Friday 30th November 1962.
A Day Not Quite Like Today
Were that 30th November a Sunday like today, then it would be Advent Sunday; the very earliest date in the calendar the Christian season can begin. But the point surely is that A Single Man takes place on a day before any suggestion that good tidings are on the horizon. The deeply bereaved Professor George Falconer (a barely putting-on-a-brave-face Colin Firth) is trapped in the past, his heart in pieces for his lost partner, Jim (Matthew Goode) killed in a snowbound car crash nine months earlier. (That nine months gestation time to this day strikes me as somewhat pertinent too.)
That the film is set in 1962 is also important. This is the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On his suburban LA campus, the talk is of the fear of annihilation; a doomed future. Yet the suicidal George can appear blasé because, ironically, he feels he has nothing left to lose. As with Kirsten Dunst’s character in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), a deeply depressed mindset appears the most appropriate to confront and respond to global destruction. Additionally, the early Sixties is a pre-sexual liberation era when gay men such as George must lead hidden lives; he only covertly learns of Jim’s death and is not invited to the funeral service; and he alludes to his own invisibility in his planned final lecture to his youthful English Literature students (though only those with ears to hear such as Nicholas Hoult’s, Kenny, take note).
About A Boy
The casting of Hugh Grant movie alumnus, Nicholas Hoult as a beautiful sexually ambiguous guardian angel of sorts sent to save a death-hungry man from the fate he would choose is worth considering. At A Single Man’s release, the film critic of one young women’s magazine squealed: ‘Who knew Hoult was such a hottie?!’ Which was a fair point given the British actor’s previous most-noted cinematic incarnation had been as a dumpy nerdy hippy kid in About A Boy (2002).
Let the right one in: Kenny’s friendship is there if George only winds down the window of his defences.
Yet in both films, Hoult’s very presence casts a certain magic over a protagonist who happens to have hit a dead end in his life. The young man’s very youthfulness, need for support, and future promise desire a response and renewed sense of responsibility from the adult man. In a culture such as our own where so many boys grow up fatherless, Hoult’s roles in both films prove arguably subversive. He is the proverbial father to the man, suggesting that men need such a fatherly dynamic with another to fully gain wholeness.
An Angel Gets His Wings
It is during the film’s final third act where Kenny’s apparent celestial status is brought to the fore. It comes at the moment when it is made acutely aware that he is both acutely aware of George’s morbid intentions and thus himself becomes intent on saving the man. That’s not to say that he actually is an angel like the white-shrouded Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or, indeed like Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife the following year. (Real screen angels are a rare species, reaching their zenith in the pre-reunification Berlin in Wings of Desire (1987).
Kenny might be a genuine angel, but he also represents grounded human kindness that looks out for others. He loves George enough to be aware that the Professor is out of sorts and needs a friend. By hook and by crook he will remain by his side to take the doleful older man’s mind off things. His devotion may be predominantly sexual but it is clearly not solely that. Or maybe, in the course of the very same Friday 30th November 1962, the student has, gradually found his curious elementary lust turn to genuine costly love.
The Depth In Surface Joys
On A Single Man’s 2009 release, much was made of this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel being the product of renowned fashion designer, Tom Ford. He has a wonderful eye. The film oozes cinematographic style and class with not a thread or frame out of place. The selection by Ford of Isherwood’s tale of finding renewed wonder and purpose in life’s small pleasures, incidents and connections is in itself a fascinating combination. The fashion business and the business of clothing ourselves is so often dismissed as frivolous and shallow. A Single Man appears Ford’s retort to that jaundiced sleight.
Certainly the screenplay is strong on the simple value of human connections integral to giving genuine compliments, or shoottng the breeze with a stranger as George does with the Spanish Carlos, or simply spending time with a loved one, silently reading while snuggled up on the sofa with them. But in George’s and by defaut Ford’s watchful eye of the world around him, worth is given to all that he surveys. Beauty, as the James Deanalike Carlos points out as the two men look in awe at the polluted LA sky can be found sometimes in awful things. Under the hood of his impending death, George ironically sees all around him anew. Even life’s apparent shallows make life liveable: this is a movie which amid everything else redeems the fashion industry and the worth of design for its own sake too.
A Hint Of Christmas
It’s a sneaky film, A Single Man. I say this as someone compiling an Advent Christmas book; that 30th November date means it avoids the cut. Indeed, there’s a sense that the screenplay attempts to avoid the joys of the season. A conversation between George and his best female friend, Julianne Moore’s Charley focuses on New Year’s resolutions, apparently bypassing Christmas altogether. Both of them notably single and far from their English homeland, the family celebrations are unlikely to be something they’re especially keen on. However, New Year’s Day is in fact part of Christmastide which runs until Epiphany and the Twelfth day of Christmas on January 6th. A Single Man’s message seems nevertheless an echoing of Dickens’ call to live Christmas every day: renewal and wonder is there each day for those with eyes to see.
This 30th of November film, then, is worth taking heed of in the same way Twelve Monkeys (13th December) and Psycho (December 11th) highlight a particular day in December. (In A Single Man, beside a car park a billboard size image of Janet Leigh’s terrified face advertises Psycho. Which is odd, given the film was released in 1960.) That very particular date on which something significant happens brings its own added dimension.
Look of horror: there is terror all around but life is full of wonder too.