Film review: A Single Man (2009)

I can hold Nicholas Hoult’s ass in a single hand. That was my standout thought from A Sinlge Man. I had others, but they maybe aren’t as good. Continuing in my journey to review the Top 25 Queer Films Of All Time comes this review of Tom Ford’s A Single Man.

The first scene is the credits rolling over bodies submerged in water, and whenever I see images like this I always think about how shit my lungs are from asthma and smoking and how I could never do a scene like this. It’s a moot point anyway, because I’m not an actor, and no one is paying me to flit about naked in water. Someone is paying Colin Firth to flit about naked in the water, and this continues throughout the film. The next scene shows George’s partner Jim dead in the snow, and I started crying like a little wussy baby. The crying continued throughout this entire movie, just so you know. It was an absolute sob-fest. 

The action begins when George wakes up from the dream of kissing his dead lover, and continues in the vein of James Joyce’s Ulysses in that it follows George’s life throughout this one day. I haven’t read the novel, but I have heard that it’s exquisite, and would definitely like to read it one day. George goes to school, rants at his students, is followed by one of them, Kenny, goes to the bank, buys bullets for his revolver, tries to kill himself, goes to his friend Charley’s house where she screams at him and then tries to kiss him (I had an English friend like this who would say the most cutting things, wallow about in self pity, and then pretend like nothing was wrong so we could continue hanging out, hating each other, and hating ourselves), sees Kenny at a bar, sloshes about naked in the sea with him, takes him home, doesn’t sleep with him, and then dies of a heart attack at 3 in the morning. Your standard day.

Okay so this film got me in ways I didn’t think a film could. I’ve certainly cried watching films before, certainly bawled my eyes out from them, but this film really made me feel George’s loss. While parts of it were distracting (the oversaturation made everyone’s face look like it was blood-red and ready to burst), the music was sublime, the dialogue was mostly believable, and the acting was incredible, though it was a very white film, with only one person of colour—a Latinx maid, Alva played by Paulette Lamori. The ending was cathartic. Wherever Jim and George are, they’re together now. It had very The Song Of Achilles vibes in that the voiceover continued after George’s death, but it didn’t feel cheap or corny.

Back to Naked Nicholas Hoult. Naked Nicholas Hoult was distracting me from the real crux of this film: Colin Firth’s loneliness. Naked Nicholas Hoult didn’t need to be there, and the awkwardness of George and Kenny’s encounter left me feeling weird. That’s not to say they should’ve slept together, and I can see where the film is coming from: concerned with things like status, wealth and image, George’s walls come down when faced with how open and honest Kenny is. He doesn’t know what to do or how to act. He drinks too much and passes out. He thinks of killing himself, but falters when faced with the logistics of how to leave as little mess as possible. He is not very good at this sort of thing.

Naked Nicholas Hoult is presented with honesty and without vulgarity, but you have to note that these are two white, typically attractive men, one in his twenties and another in his fifties. There is an age gap and an obvious power imbalance—George is Kenny’s professor. More than that, Kenny seems to want to do whatever George wants. Attracted as he is to George, Kenny lets him take things too far: first in the water when George almost drowns, and then later George passes out from drinking too much. The film portrays their sexual relationship almost as something that could have happened, if George hadn’t passed out, if George hadn’t died of a heart attack. 

But it’s not cute, or sexy, or wonderful. Kenny is thirty years George’s junior, and as spontaneous as he seems, he’s presented as something of a manic pixie dream boy, designed in a lab to bring George out of his comfort zone and make him think twice about killing himself. Kenny serves the plot, but then George dies anyway. George appreciates the surface things, and that’s all Kenny is: surface. Their conversations are shallow and trite, and once Kenny serves his purpose—to make sure George doesn’t kill himself—he no longer exists. Jim is the only one who matters in the story, and he’s dead too. He’s filtered through George’s perspective, and we have only the memory of him. He doesn’t interact with any of the other characters in the film. 

In fact, there are very few characters who interact with anyone outside of George (the example I can think of is Jennifer Connelly’s character and her daughter. No, their dialogue doesn’t even attempt to pass the Bechdel Test, as it is one-sided). The other characters are set dressing to George’s grief. Even Jim is nothing but a memory, something to give George a motivation to kill himself, as opposed to a character in his own right. The other characters are very one-dimensional—except maybe Charley, who we see a lot of, but her motivation is wrapped up in one-sided desire, and adheres to the trope of straight woman desperately seeking gay man. While it does a lot to flesh out George’s character, in doing so it relegates other characters to the background. Kenny is there to stir up desire; Charley is there to show how isolated George is; Jim is there, as a dead lover, to propel George’s grief. I’m trying not to say “man-pain”, and maybe “man in legitimate pain”, but this film smacks of tearjerker material.I mean, like, I knew this. From the first shot of the overturned car, Jim’s body, the blood, I was bawling my fucking eyes out. Of course it got me, because I am a fucking sap. So this movie isn’t that good. I mean, it’s probably a masterpiece, but you know what film is better at handling grief of a long-lost lover who the main character knew for longer than 16 years? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That’s right, I fucking said it. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a better movie—nay, film—than A Single Man. It’s better at cinematography, it’s better at portraying grief, it’s better at portraying men in pain, and loving relationships with fully fleshed out characters—plus it has brainwashing, science fiction, and cyborg assassins. So don’t watch A Single Man if you love yourself. Watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier instead.

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Find my other reviews of the top 25 queer films here.

About the author
Podcast hag, author, deadbeat lesbian.

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