The changes that occur in the material world may seem overwhelmingly great, but they are nothing if our internal designs remain unaltered. Some souls enjoy being caught up in the hoopla – protesting the latest war, denouncing the latest villain, celebrating the latest triumph of the human spirit – and this is all quite commendable. And yet attentive monitoring of these movements suggests that it is not so much their laudable ends that matter, but the fact that they matter at all. People, in other words, want to feel like they have lived through something of importance. If your whole concept of right and wrong and interesting and banal is confined to the material world, you will have a lot of newspapers to read but may have precious little time for art. Art, of course, also has its faddists. And modern art's inherent flaw is that it must continuously attempt to be modern, which means that its values will be shaped around whatever the loathsome "spirit of the times" dictates (one recent novel featured a character who records background sounds at airports to sell to adulterous husbands, one of the most chilling examples of creative bankruptcy you will ever find). True art, however, is eternal, and it is eternal because apart from technological advancements in its appurtenances it could occur at any place and at any time. Amidst the hubbub of the latest putsch and politicizing, it remains alone like a fortified beacon caressing the salty waves. May all the tyrants of the world be destroyed – I wish them all thunderous doom – and may we still enjoy works of splendid vision like this fine film.
We begin, as we should given what follows, in a dream, but it is a dream of death. George Falconer (an extraordinary Colin Firth) walks along a snowy road to where a car has flipped over and ejected a young man's bleeding body. That young man is the thirty-something Jim (Matthew Goode). And when George comes closer and realizes that he will have to wait for another life or world to see Jim again, he lies down beside him and kisses him with the tenderness that can only be love or what we have always imagined love to be. There will be many moments like this in A Single Man, which is as much about George's inability to move past this loss as it is about the significance of all our breaths in general. George escapes from this hideous nightmare, one that must assault him often in myriad anagrams, and we note that the time is roughly three in the morning. That notation is vital as, like in any good Greek tragedy, we will see twenty-four hours of our hero, a small span of time for a fate to be decided. When he starts his day a couple of hours later, gone is all the psychic disorder and pain; in its place are puritan steadfastness and ritual. "It takes me a while to become George," a disembodied narrator informs us. "I look in the mirror and see not so much a face as the expression of a predicament." Some reviewers may seize upon this lovely observation as the money quote, and yet the more deeply we proceed into George's day, the less applicable the comment becomes.
A resident of Los Angeles for the past twenty-four years, George has loved his Jim for two-thirds of that period, and nothing of his love has abated since Jim's death in March of 1962. When he sifts through his American memories (we get nothing of Britain as if it never existed), there should be two Jim recollections for every one in which the former serviceman does not appear. Yet all we see and hear is Jim. Nothing of George's work as a college professor of literature is conveyed; nothing of any family members he has; nothing, as it were, that took place before meeting Jim in a jubilant postwar California bar and knowing that here was someone who would remain in his heart forever. Even Charley, née Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his former lover and lone confidante, recurs in a single memory, a horrible, wordless dream from that rainy night when he was dutifully informed by Jim's cousin that a fatal car crash had taken his love away. As he swallows his tears and announces his attendance at the funeral, the cousin coolly replies, "the service is just for family." Only a crude mind would equate the couple with their two smooth fox terriers that accompany Jim on his fatal drive (one dog dies with him and the other, "a small female," is unaccounted for), but the symbolism is obvious and galling. Is the main reason we feel a pinprick of remorse for this metaphor the way in which homosexual couples in the early 1960s were obliged to be invisible? That may be; one well-done if blunt scene in George's classroom hammers that point home. George has loved Jim; Jim loved George; but when one of them vanishes it is very much as if their relationship never happened at all. "Wasn't Jim a substitute for something else?" asks a smashed and still-hopeful Charley (Charley spends most of her day trying to look presentable enough to get bombed in public), which brings about one of George's eruptions at an otherwise sedate and very boozy dinner party for two. No, Jim was the real thing. Nothing on God's green earth could ever return those sixteen happy years and Jim will remain forever young and beautiful.
Many years ago I leafed through an Isherwood omnibus that included the original novel and was not particularly impressed, but that cursory judgment has no bearing on the screen adaptation. The quality of a film about love and loss is based squarely upon whether you care about the love forlorn, regardless of whether it takes place in a time of cholera or war or famine, or whether it at all answers to your own fantasies. A thin, at times gratuitous layer of topicality coats A Single Man, primarily from the mutually assured destruction that Cuban missiles were supposed to harbinger, a conceit that makes George's quandary at once trivial and earth-shattering. "If there's going to be a world with no time for sentiment," George declaims with a tone more befitting this actor, "then it's not a world I want to live in." And of what then is George's world composed? The One Day in the Life of George Falconer premise works not only because a couple of months' worth might have become an exercise in morosity, it also works because the director's natural eye for beauty and color as well as his fetish for the male body conspire into a stunning tapestry of soft moments. The odd, shy stares that George exchanges with his handsome student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); his frank abuse of Charley's good offices; the lecherous smoke break with a Spanish rent boy (Jon Kortajarena); and the numerous occasions in which George notices eye color, desire, tension, or fear in his fellow humans. And of course, two scenes with Jim. In the first, Jim claims that he has never once slept with a woman ("Doesn't everyone sleep with women when they're young?" is George's glib rebuttal), which if true makes Jim different and pure, not like the thousands of gay men who have not only slept with women, but married, impregnated, and spent a lifetime with them because the life they really wanted could not so easily be lived. The second scene reveals the couple's reading choices (George is deep into this masterpiece) and, after some throwaway bravado on Jim's part, George's passionate devotion to his partner. And as we know, every swan only has so many summers.