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Toronto: Swooning for Colin Firth in 'A Single Man'

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a-single-man_lThe most ravishing shot I saw in any movie at Toronto this year occurs midway through A Single Man. The year is 1962, and we’re in Los Angeles, where George Falconer (Colin Firth), a 52-year-old college professor from London who teaches English at what looks like it might be UCLA, has stopped at a liquor store. There, a hustler tries to pick him up. George is homosexual, and very much in the closet (in 1962, there’s not really such thing as out of the closet), and as the two drift into the parking lot, the sunset glows with a purplish-pink, nearly unearthly beauty. What makes it so splendid? “It’s the smog,” says the hustler, who’s coiffed like a barrio James Dean, and sure enough there has never been a sunset that looks like this outside of L.A. It’s the weirdest thing: Suddenly, a movie is making you wistful for the dawn of the age of air pollution.

George, it turns out, isn’t interested in the young man’s advances. He’s still in mourning over the death, in a car crash, of his romantic partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), a younger man he lived with, happily, for 16 years. To George, Jim is irreplaceable: his one and only love, his needle in the haystack. And all the beauty of the world is now just a reminder of everything he has lost. A Single Man is suffused with beauty (it’s a movie conceived in a swoon), and also with a sense of what 1962 was really like: the elegant streamlined clothes, the interiors that looked modern and slightly shabby-wooden at the same time, the more languid tempo that prevailed in an era before the electricity of the counterculture had begun to seep into everything. It’s the same mood, of course, that Mad Men evokes so brilliantly, only there’s a weekly-TV snap to the rhythms of Mad Men, whereas A Single Man is synched to the jazzy, laid-back West Coast melancholy of its protagonist, who has become addicted to his broken heart. Here’s a prediction: The movie will break yours as well.

Colin Firth has always been an intensely likable actor, at times even a heartthrob, but in every movie I’ve seen him in, he is always…Colin Firth: witty, slightly diffident, with that feeling of resign hanging over his every grin and grimace. In A Single Man, though, I felt as if I were seeing him for the very first time. He’s got a different aura, with mildly blondish straight hair and horn rims that give him the look of a bookish Roger Moore, and though George spends the movie swimming in regret, he still maintains a light, puckish air.
A Single Man is based on a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, who wrote tales of liberated love in a pre-liberated era, and here, as in the movie of Brokeback Mountain, something richly ironic and emotional happens: Since the movie is set at a time before the lives of gay men were overtly politicized, and a man like George had to “pass,” almost invisibly, through his life, his erotic and romantic feelings are forced to flower, exclusively and almost luxuriously, inside him. The result is that this tale of passion in an outwardly oppressive era accomplishes what so many gay films in our comparatively free era have not, which is to transcend the very notion that sexual orientation should be categorized.

For Isherwood, who died in 1986 (at the age of 81), love was love, period, and Tom Ford, the first-time director of A Single Man, has taken that spirit and made something small-scale yet tender and memorable out of it. Ford, a former fashion designer, became celebrated in the ’90s for reviving the houses of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and make no mistake: He’s also a born filmmaker, with a rapturous eye, an instinct for how to stage a scene, and a feeling for that special place where sadness and happiness intertwine until you can’t pull them apart. The entire film takes place over one day, in which George, besotted with quiet despair, teaches his classes, gets drawn to the flirtatious gaze of an adoring student (Nicholas Hoult), and makes plans for the suicide he intends to commit that night. Firth plays him as a man of his time who can’t stand the way that the times are changing — he already senses the ’60s coming, and he sees civility going out the window with them. Yet he is also, in the most delicate and moving way, ahead of his time.

Firth’s performance is bound to win attention in this year’s Oscar race — he’s simply too good to be ignored. Julianne Moore is marvelous, too, as George’s divorced, tippling, slightly broken-down English chum, and so is Matthew Goode as Jim, who we see in flashbacks that present a domestic union of two men in the most simple, direct, and touching of terms. As Mad Man suggests, it may be a topsy-turvy world when we have to go back to 1962 to discover the people we maybe still are. But when that journey is undertaken with the debonair humanity that Tom Ford and Colin Firth bring to A Single Man, it’s one you won’t want to miss.

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Firth took home an award at this year’s Venice Film Festival (which got going, as it always does, just before Toronto), and so did the Israeli film Lebanon — in fact, it won the grand prize, the Golden Lion. But in the latter case, what was the jury thinking? Lebanon, which is set in 1982, as the Israelis are invading that country, is a drama that takes place more or less entirely inside an Israeli tank — it’s like Das Boot set in a dingy subway bathroom. Now don’t get me wrong: This is actually a bold idea for a war movie, and there are moments in Lebanon that moved me and shook me up. We’re given glimpses of the outside world through the tank’s gun-view periscope, and a few of the images of civilian casualties have a glancing, matter-of-fact horror. But the young soldiers in the tank, who quarrel like old men in a barbershop, aren’t well characterized, and once the grimy claustrophobic novelty of the setting wears off, the movie becomes worse than claustrophobic — it turns stagnant and dull. It is also, politically, one of those mildly, almost generically self-critical war-is-hell “statements,” but then, that’s exactly the sort of thing that wins prizes, doesn’t it?

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