A Single Man: Beauty and the Black Dog

Mental illness, physical disability, monstrous evil, wild eccentricity. These are the traditional roles to put an actor into Oscar contention. Awards bodies love transformation of mental or physical types. Fair enough, these are eye-catching roles, but it’s a fact that tends to be a little patronising towards comedy: great comedy performances are just as hard – if not harder – than ‘serious’ tragedy; but they’re probably less-lauded.

So to read of Colin Firth taking on the central role in a A Single Man – a role that features suicidal depression bought on by grief- is to assume that he’s tilting at formal recognition. And he should get it. His a terrific performance, occupying just about every second of screen time. Note an ounce of histrionics, a model of economy and as painfully a real portrayal of depression as you’ll ever see on-screen.

A Single Man is directed by  iconic fashion designer Tom Ford and based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1960s novel. It all takes place on one day, the day on which George (Colin Firth) has decided he will kill himself. His partner died in a car crash a few months ago and this being the 1960s, he wasn’t invited to the funeral – gay relationships were the family’s dirty secret. George has just been existing, trying to get through the day and today he has had enough. He will put his things in order, then finish it. The film gives us flashback to the happier days, and takes us through his day encounter by encounter. Noticing things for the last time is as if it’s the first time – suddenly his heart is reawakened to beauty, his heart to a more real honesty.  Where will it lead? That is the film’s journey.

It would be easy to criticise this, especially given the first-time director’s background. It would be easy to say the visual flourishes give a surface sheen of beauty to tragedy, just the empty styling of a hollow heart. That would be easy, but lazy and wrong. The beauty is heart-breaking, and that’s the point. There’s nothing so tragic as being unable to see beauty, and it’s that journey which the direction enables us to take with  George. One of the great  lies of depression is that there is nothing beautiful, or no point in awakening your heart to anything that claims to be beautiful. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone attempt to put this on-screen before; that this film does this, and does it so memorably is near-miraculous.

There are a few similarities with American Beauty here, in theme and style – this, I think, is less mainstream though. That’s neither good nor bad, but it does mean it seems to have a freedom to chase artistic ideas more fully than than American Beauty. The latter had moments of visual or stylistic flourishes and then had to return to more mainstream approaches –  and it did that well.  A Single Man is aiming, I think, at less of a mass-market so allows whims and ideas free-reign. That doesn’t mean it’s hard-going, just different. Like American Beauty, I came out of A Single Man thinking I hadn’t breathed in two hours, that I’d been in a new, more real emotional world. Both films are about the awakening of a heart and mind to see what’s really there in more vivid, real ways.

This, then, is a heart-achingly beautiful and brilliant. See it for one of the best performances of the year. See it to understand or give voice to depression, what it means to lose the will to get out bed and make it through the day. See it to have a heart re-awakened to beauty. See it to experience a new vision of how to show such things on a screen. See it to have your heart, mind and spirit touched.

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