Mr Darcy's suicide notes


A Single Man (M). Running time: 100 minutes. Director: Tom Ford. Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult

A Single Man, Colin Firth, Julianne MooreIt's the moment that made a generation of women swoon. British actor Colin Firth strips off the outer layers of his immaculate period costume and dives into a provincial English pond. This is a cathartic moment for Mr Darcy, the moody hero of the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice. He emerges from the pond symbolically cleansed and physically saturated.

The combination of the emotional and the tactile in this image — of the brooding, masculine Darcy newly reacquainted with his softer side, while cool droplets cling to his curly hair and sideburns, and his white shirt equally clings to his torso — still seems to make many women (and no doubt some men) dip their eyes demurely at every recollection.

Fashion designer turned auteur Tom Ford, by casting Firth as the lead character in A Single Man, channels this enduring sex appeal to intriguing effect. In Ford's film, an older Firth is cloaked in the foppish attire of a university English professor, complete with thick, black-rimmed glasses. Yet it's not enough to conceal the sex symbol within.

This is important, as sex isn't the first thing that comes to mind when considering the film's plot. Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay man who is steeped in the depths of an eight-month pit of depression, since the accidental death of his (much younger) partner of 16 years, Jim (Goode). George is very English, but lives in LA in the early 1960s. We meet him on an important day: he has decided it will be his last.

We follow George as he spends the day making his arrangements. He lays out personal papers, funeral instructions and farewell letters in a tidy grid upon the desk in his home office. He schedules a final binge with long-time friend, drinking partner and former lover, Charley (Moore). He teaches what he believes will be his last class, a tutorial on Aldous Huxley that digresses into a monologue on fear.

There are hints that despite his intentions, George isn't entirely lost to life. In a sequence that exemplifies the balance of humour and pathos that is managed throughout the film, the ever impeccable George rehearses the suicide, showing great concern for his personal comfort during what will be his final moments, and for preserving the cleanliness of his environs — God forbid he should make a mess, even in death.

George is a likeable character, yet somewhat predatory. His eye is drawn to what he perceives as beauty, often physical characteristics of people he encounters. We see, in close up and from his point of view, the features that attract him: an eye, a mouth, a bare torso. His gaze lingers almost leeringly. It is not always unwelcome by the suject. Nor is it diverted by gender; while socially gay, George appreciates beauty in both male and female form.

At such moments, George experiences a lift. The colours of the world literally become brighter, and warmer. Once the moment passes, insipidness seeps back in. This visual effect suggests a certain irrepressibility in George's libido, but also an awareness that happiness can be drawn from seemingly small things in life, even when sadness overwhelms. This is an important theme as the day — and George's life — progresses towards its end.

We see both the good and evil faces of George's intense sexual appeal. His drinking session with Charley is foreshadowed by a series of phone calls. In each, Charley is seen incrementally more 'made up', progressing from mussed and pallid to ostentatiously glamorous. The impression is that while George has been preparing for death, Charley, ignorant of his suicidal intentions, has spent the entire day making herself beautiful for him.

While Charley's infatuation with George has reached self-destructive proportions, there is something sweeter in the interest shown by one of George's students. Kenny (Hoult) has an almost effeminate beauty combined with a streak of James Dean bad-boyishness; childlikeness combined with world-wisdom. Yet despite the age difference, there is nothing creepy about the attraction that develops between George and Kenny.

In fact it proves to be George's saving grace. Kenny's gentle forthrightness leads the older man to unseen truths within himself. The film's various plot threads draw tight around a physically naked but ultimately non-sexual tryst within the glass walls of George and Jim's home. But the final, decisive resolution seems to sell short the character of George, so meticulously studied during the course of the film.

Firth won a BAFTA and has been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of George. He is deserving, evoking as he does a man devastated by grief, gripped by depression, intending suicide but not yet ready to shake off life. Credit to first time filmmaker Ford for finding innovative ways to allow us to share this intriguing character.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, A Single Man, Tom Ford, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult



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Existing comments

Beautiful review of a beautiful film.
Rochelle Siemienowicz | 18 February 2010

Thanks for this review Tim. Sounds worthwhile seeing this one.
Kevin Mark | 18 February 2010


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