At some point in most Western movies featuring Indians a particularly noble savage will turn to the camera and intone, in what Hollywood used to, and may still well, believe be the stilted way they talk, "It's a good day to die". As this usually happens just before a climatic battle scene the words have become wrongly associated with some sort of warrior ethos.
However, the sentiment behind them was not meant as some glorification of death in war, but a celebration of a life lived to the fullest. Any day you live should be a good day to die because you have done your utmost to experience everything that has come your way, not because you're about to throw it away by getting gunned down by John Wayne.
While it might seem like quite a stretch to jump from Westerns to a movie about a gay university professor in the early 1960's mourning the death of his long term partner, writer director Tom Ford's adaptation of novelist Christopher Isherwood's novel, A Single Man, being released on DVD June 6th/10 is an object lesson in learning how to appreciate the beauty of what life has to offer. However, this is not some sentimental peon to the joys of middle class happiness complete with wife, kids, car and split level ranch house in the suburbs or any such Disneyfied view of the world.
The lead character is an outsider from the mainstream in more than just his sexual orientation, as he's an intellectual in a society suspicious of ideas and a foreigner - English - to boot. A neighbour's daughter tells us all we need to know about his place in society when she innocently mentions to him that her Daddy has said something about him being light in the loafers.
The movie follows Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) around on what he supposes will be his last day on earth. At some point in the not too distant past his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident leaving him alone. As the movie progresses we learn about their life together through a series of flashbacks. We don't know how long they were together, but what we see of their relationship is enough for us to realize Falconer's devastation at Jim's death is justified - especially for a gay man at that time period. What other chance is their for him to experience life again in the same way? How could he ever be possibly happy again?
The emptiness of his life without Jim is beautifully depicted in the opening of the movie as we follow Falconer through his morning routine prior to heading off to work. His despair is an almost palpable thing as he wanders through a house empty of everything but his memories. Everything, from the activity of his neighbours that he catches sight of through his bathroom window to his solitary breakfast, only seems to emphasize his circumstances.
He appears to be completely cut off from the world around him. Yet, it's almost as if because he has reached a point of no return, that he no longer cares about about what will happen to him, the barrier he's erected between himself and the world since Jim's death falls away. Little things, like the patent leather shoes and the blue of his neighbour's daughter's dress shine with a vividness that makes them objects of wonder.
We learn a little more about George's life when he gets together with his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a single woman who has seen her beauty fade, her husband leave her for someone younger and her son grow up and leave home. Adrift, with no purpose, she had turned to alcohol and memories of her youth when she and George had a brief affair for solace.
In the brief time that he spends with her, we see beneath George's shell as she forces him to loosen up, encouraged by a bottle of gin, and dance with him. There's an intimacy to their relationship that is surprising based on what we have seen of George up until then, but at the same time it's also in the past and holds no real hope of anything for the future.
As we follow Falconer through his final day on earth we are made aware that he is entering what can only be called a period of heightened awareness. When he's not remembering some moment of happiness that he experienced with Jim which makes his present seem even more desolate, he has a series of brief moments where he finds himself fascinated by the minute details of life around him.
Director Ford has stressed this division visually as whenever George becomes engrossed in something the colours on the screen become just a little more vivid than they are when he's just going about his day. The technique is used so subtlety its not immediately noticeable, yet as the day progresses we can't help but be aware of them and the effect they are having on George. For when he starts to prepare himself for his suicide at the end of the day, his resolve no longer appears to be as solid as it was at the beginning of the movie. It's as if making the decision to end his life was what he needed to do in order to learn how to live again and appreciate the little things which make life special.
A movie which places such heavy emphasis on one character's emotional voyage obviously requires an exceptional performance from the actor cast in the lead role. Colin Firth has always impressed me with his abilities as an actor, and he delivers one of the finest performances I've ever seen on screen as George Falconer. From the clinical way in which he lays out those items he wants to be found after his death, how you can read what he's feeling not only in his face but through the subtle changes his body undergoes, to how he manages to be utterly convincing in his portrayal of the process George goes through in the course of the day, everything about his performance is absolutely riveting.
It's especially fascinating to watch his interaction with his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) at various points in the film as his attitude changes towards the younger man from slightly exasperated to appreciation. While we're not sure whether Kenny is flirting with him or not, Firth is able to communicate not only his character's flattered response to the attention he's being paid, but how Kenny's enthusiasm for life sparks the renewal of his own interest in living.
While there is no denying what a pleasure it is to watch Firth's performance, nor the excellent job the script and the director have done in making the process George Falconer goes through completely believable, the ending felt like a bit of a cop out. I don't know if its what was in the original story by Isherwood, or if it was handled in the same way, but it was the only part of the movie that felt contrived and was quite frankly disappointing. Compared to the artful, and almost delicate approach taken in the rest of the movie, it was about as subtle as a brick wall. I assume it was meant to be ironical, but to be honest it was just too predictable to be anything but cliched.
The DVD comes with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and is available in anamorphic widescreen format. While the special features are limited to a commentary by director Ford and a making of featurete, the latter is far superior to what you'd normally expect from such things. Instead of the usual thing where everybody sits around talking about how wonderful everybody else is, the interviews actually talk about the characters and the movie's objectives in and intelligent manner.
We meet each of the four principal cast members and find out their take on the film, (Interesting side note - the two American male characters are played by British actors, Hoult and Goode, while the British female is played by the American Moore and it was only through the interviews that I found out about Hoult and Goode's nationalities) and the director talks about what he was attempting to accomplish with the script and what it was about the story that attracted him in the first place.
If you didn't have a chance to see A Single Man in the theatres, take the opportunity offered by it being made available on DVD, and Blu-Ray, Tuesday July 6th/10 to do so. Don't let the weakness of the movie's ending dissuade you from seeing this film. It's going to be a long time before you see a performance to match the one given by Colin Firth and a script as life affirming as this one.
(Article first published as DVD Review: A Single Man on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted July 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.