A Single Man is a movie that I have a serious love/hate relationship with. But before I continue, I must warn you that this will be a spoiler-filled review, as it is impossible to detail my major complaint with the film without discussing the scene in question.
A Single Man is a beautiful film about grief and moving on. It centers on George (Colin Firth), who plays a British-born English professor living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960’s. His long-term partner (Matthew Goode) dies a sudden tragic death and he is forced to move on. That’s pretty much it, as plot goes. It’s basically a day in his life…how he deals with his grief and how the various interactions he has with people that day shape and change his outlook.
The film is directed by Tom Ford, who was already a famous fashion designer before he decided to get behind the camera and make this movie. As first-time filmmakers go, this is quite a debut. The film is exquisitely painted and gorgeously photographed. He uses various recurring motifs such as clocks and close-ups of people’s eyes. (But don’t ask me to explain the reasoning behind that!) The costumes and set design are impeccable, re-creating the 1960’s to great detail. All of the performances are amazing in this movie, starting with the best: Colin Firth. I believe this is by far the best performance he has given to date and I would be quite pleased if it led him to an Academy Award. Julianne Moore gives a rollicking fun yet brief performance as George’s next-door-neighbor, best friend and fellow expatriate. Also wonderful is Nicholas Hoult as a student who enters George’s life at the right place and time.
This is one of the best films I have ever seen in regards to showing how people deal with grief. It is impossible to watch the film without your heart breaking for George. To see him left alone, unable to see his lover again or even attend the funeral. To watch as he so resolutely tries to go on with his life and retain his composure. To see the profound loss and loneliness he feels that leads him towards suicide. And it fills your heart with joy to watch him fill that hole in his heart, even if only a little bit…enough to keep him from pulling that trigger. You watch him discover that even in the darkest pit of despair, there is hope and see him find new love, wherever it may lead him. And then, after this glorious rebirth, he dies. THIS is my problem with the movie.
I have many problems with this ending. First, I think it does a major disservice to everything that comes before it in the movie. The story was told and a beautiful story it was. So to tack on a “kill the puppy” ending is just ridiculous. Some people may argue that this is the way the story ended in the book by Christopher Isherwood, which this film is based on. But I’ve never read the book so I have no idea if the ending is the same, and I feel the movie should stand on its own merits anyway. Killing off George after seeing his epiphanic transformation is just insulting…especially for someone like me. As a gay man I have spent my whole life needing positive gay male images in my life (as anyone in a minority group would need). Mostly I’ve been stuck with the funny sidekick or, sadly, tortured souls and lecherous villains. I think that’s why this movie hit me so hard. It’s a masterfully crafted piece about a very realistic gay character dealing with grief and overcoming it. To kill him off just adds to the age-old trend of gay characters never achieving happiness.