A Single Man (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-2 ; L-3; S-5/N-5. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Two are better than one, because they have a
good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one
will lift up the other; but woe to one who is
alone and falls and does not have another to
help. Again, if two lie together, they keep
warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And
though one might prevail against another, two
will withstand one. A threefold cord is not
quickly broken.
Eclessiastes 4:9-12

Jim and George during happier times.

2009 Weinstein & Co.

This thought-provoking film begins with a shot of a crashed car, the driver’s body lying dead on the ground. Cut to a close-up of the young man’s bloody face. A man approaches the body and, strangely, lies down beside it. Suddenly the man wakes up. It is George Falconer (Colin Firth), a transplanted Brit teaching literature at a Los Angeles college. We soon learn via a flashback to the night of the car wreck that the dead man was his lover Jim (Matthew Goode). They had lived and loved together for 16 years, each complementing the other so well that George, now that he has lost Jim, feels less than whole, less than alive. The sequence in which George arises, carefully lays out his wardrobe for the day, and meticulously goes about his toilet, reveals that he has been living on autopilot. Each day he carefully arranges his attire and his face so that the world will guess nothing of his inner self. Jim has been dead for almost three quarters of a year, so George has become a “single man,” the adjective referring far more than just to number. George could be the subject of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song “I Am a Rock,” or of “One Is the Loneliest Number.” Scenes of the present are filmed in a somewhat faded color, whereas flashbacks range from black and white to full Technicolor, the latter suggesting the warmth of the relationship between the two men. The scene in which a cousin of Jim’s calls to inform George of his lover’s death is wonderfully under-stated. Jim had gone to visit his family. We learn immediately what we might have guessed from George’s staying behind when the cousin says that the family did not want George informed, but that he thought he should be. When George asks about a memorial service, the caller says that it is “for family only.” I suspect that the hurt of those words was second only to the news of his lover’s death.

It is 1962, and being homosexual was still largely regarded as a degrading, shameful thing, something that could be used for blackmail if the gay person was a person of power or fame. Thus it was a fearful time, not just for gays, but also for the world at large, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear holocaust being in full sway. Indeed, on his way to class a colleague of George’s urges him to build a bomb shelter like his own so that he will survive the atomic attack. In class George diverts his discussion of Aldus Huxley to give what amounts to a mini-sermon on fear. “Fear is taking over our life,” George tells the somewhat inattentive students—all that is but one who had caught his eye a few minutes earlier outside, a student whom we come to know as Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). George enumerates the fears—a few of which are fear of whites that blacks are taking over, fear of bad breath, of growing old and being alone, of being useless, of finding life meaningless.

It would be easy to conclude from the above that fear is the theme of the film, but there is so much more, especially concerning the need for, and loss, of companionship; the need for at least one other person to know us deeply and intensely, and yet still to love us. Jim was that person for George, and although he does have a good friend in Charlotte, whom he calls Charley (Julianne Moore), his relationship with her is far less intense. Like himself, a Brit, hers were the arms in which he sought comfort on the night that he learned of Jim’s death, and they often share dinners and evening cocktails. She harbors the forlorn hope that George will “get over” his gayness, a widely attitude then and still promoted by many conservative Christians, and relate to her on a basis other than just friendship. Thus Charley never really understands her friend, nor can she offer him more than a few hours of relaxation before he returns alone to his sumptuous but empty house.

As George’s day begins, we get the first hint that he intends this to be his last, when he takes a gun from a locked drawer and drops it into his briefcase. On the way to his class he buys a box of bullets. That night, just before the time of his dinner appointment with Charley, he lays out his best suit, shirt and tie, and writes a note that the tie is to be tied in a Windsor knot. (Meticulous even in preparing for death.) He places an envelop of money inside a loaf of bread that he knows his faithful cook and maid will discover. He writes several notes, obviously intended for Charley and other friends. He takes the gun and places the barrel into his mouth. However, he is so meticulous that he seems to want to be comfortable in his death, as he changes position on the bed, adjusting and readjusting the pillows. He moves to another room. The clock shows that it is almost time for him to walk over to Charley’s. What happens there and subsequently how the already mentioned Kenny plays an important role makes for engaging viewing, with an ending that is strangely ironic.

The statement in the Genesis Creation Story, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” is a universal one, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. Not since Brokeback Mountain has a film explored so well the details of a gay couple. Director Tom Ford, before this, his first feature film, was a successful fashion designer. He has marvelously adapted Christopher Isherwood’s novel. This is one film, regardless of what one believes about homosexuality that will stay with you for a long time.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers follow, especially in the latter half when the ending is given away for the sake of discussion.

1. Compare this film to Brokeback Mountain. Which deals more with youthful passion, and which with a more mature, settled in relationship? How does the way in which present and past scenes are photographed contribute to the depiction of George’s present bleak existence? How does his actions add to this?

2. George thinks that his blank expression and meticulous dress hide himself from others, and yet what do others see? Even the bank teller.

3. What does the telephone call from Jim’s cousin reveal about Jim’s family and the attitude of that time toward homosexuals? How does this add to George’s grief and his sense of isolation? How does this still exist, such as the policy of many hospitals to allow “only the family” into intensive care units and the like? How do we see that there is at least one compassionate “straight” person in Jim’s family?

4. What is George’s relationship with Charley? How is she unhappy in her own way? What would she like their relationship to develop into?

5. Why do you think that Kenny feels drawn to George? Do you think he understands this himself?

6. What do you think of George’s exposition of fear? How is this still true for our times? How much of political tactics of the past has been the exploitation of our fears? (And scan an electronic copy of the Scriptures and see how often persons are told, “Do not be afraid.” )

7. During George’s brief encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) the two look at the L.A. smog, and George (I think) observes, “Sometimes, awful things have
their own kind of beauty.” How is this perhaps the beginning of George’s embracing life at the end of his day of determining to end everything? What terrible or unpleasant things have you found “beauty” in?

8. What is it that George discovers that stops him from shooting himself? What ordinary moments in your relationships have become those warm, wonderful events that make life, even during its tragic events, worth living? What irony do you see in George’s ultimate fate? How is this very similar to the epiphany that came to Lester Burnham at the end of his life in American Beauty?