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A Single Man
Time Out New York Project: Issue #741, December 10-16, 2009
Dir. Tom Ford. 2009. R. 99mins. Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode.
Christopher Isherwood’s seminal queer novel deserves a film adaptation that captures both its sense of place and its activist spirit. Cowriter-director Tom Ford settles for the glossy ephemera of a Vanity Fair cover spread. Both Isherwood and Ford follow Brit-expat college professor George (Firth, dully competent despite the film festival plaudits and Oscar buzz) through a single, sun-baked California day at the height of the Cuban Missile crisis. But only in the film is there a hoary motivating factor — a suicidal death wish stemming from George’s mournful pining for his dead lover Jim (Goode) — meant to round off edges that should remain jagged. (The most frayed thing onscreen is, tellingly, an angora sweater.)
Ford’s biggest mistake is making George a martyrdom-ready symbol; too many movies subscribe to the regressive notion that queers are unassailable victims of fate and circumstance. One of the most revealing amendments here involves a flashback in which George is informed of Jim’s death and is refused an invite to the funeral. There’s no such melodramatic manipulation in Isherwood’s tome where George is invited to the funeral and refuses out of a fascinatingly contradictory mix of pride, prejudice and anguish. It deepens his humanity rather than making him allegorically alien.
Isherwood set out to normalize his gay protagonist’s experience, showing the many different poses he assumed within a seemingly routine day (in that context, masturbation was as mundane yet significant an occurrence as driving on the freeway). Ford privileges sexual preference over all else. It’s the defining trait of his George — a Camille-esque affliction signaled by a portentous cough and overcome in a sacrificial ending that turns Isherwood’s beautifully enigmatic final passages into a poisonous, irony-laced tear-jerk.—Keith Uhlich