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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Proclamations of the Red Queen

23rd March 2010

Review: Film: A Single Man (2008)

Posted by: Craig Young

In 1962, life was considerably different for a newly widowed gay man than it is today. However, that is exactly the situation that confronts Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) in Tom Fords’ A Single Man, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel.

Isherwood is best known for his tribute to the dying days of Weimar Berlin social and sexual liberalism, Cabaret. In A Single Man, though, it is the early sixties, in conservative Southern California. George Falconer is a university professor, who has just lost his younger lover Jim (Matt Goode) in a car accident. Because this is half a century ago, Jim’s formerly estranged homophobic family take over the funeral and deny George his moral status as widower and next of kin. He is even refused permission to attend the funeral. George resolves to try to commit suicide, going through the motions as his female friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and Kenny Potter (Nick Hoult), a younger and obsessed student, try to stop him. After paying Carlos (Juan Kortajarena), a male sex worker, for his time but not sex, George and Kenny meet in a bar. They go skinny dipping and return to George’s place, where Kenny puts him to bed but doesn’t join him, also hiding his gun. However, George has decided to give life another go…until he suddenly dies from a heart attack.

A Single Man was well-feted at the Venice International Film Festival in 2008. Colin Firth won best actor and the sumptously filmed movie also won the Vulpi Cup and Golden Lion awards for its cinematography- Ford is also responsible for the sixties-based advertising company US drama series Mad Men, which gives it a convincing period feel.

I need to address historical context here. A Single Man is a convincing portrait of the (unacceptable) way we were. In 1957, the UK Wolfenden Report had just been issued. While Labour MP Leo Abse was intent on introducing a bill based on its recommendations that would partially decriminalise male homosexuality (with severe restrictions and limitations), his Sexual Offences Act 1967 was still some years in the future- and this was also seven years before Stonewall erupted in New York in 1969, giving birth to contemporary lesbian and gay liberation in the United States. Like Another Country, Maurice and Wilde, this belongs to the British ‘heritage genre’ and so there is loving attention to sumptuous architectural surroundings, period furniture and dress and equally antique social attitudes. What distinguishes A Single Man from the above is that it occurs within living memory (insofar as some of our older readers are concerned. However, it is still an alien world. 

It was a time when male homosexuality per se was still a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment, in Britain and the United States alike. As a result, gay male personalities, social networks and relationships were warped and distorted by the burden of concealment and closetry, leading to homophobic violence without legal remedy and blackmail, ruined careers and reputations. Change was coming- in 1961, Victim had featured Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr, a closeted and married gay lawyer, trying to locate the murderer of a gay accquaintance, Jack Barrett.

This was the way we were, until 1986 in the context of New Zealand when the Lange administration finally decriminalised male homosexuality after Fran Wilde’s Homosexual Law Reform Act passed through Parliament, despite vitriol, hysteria and fascistic cries for our extermination from the Christian Right of that time.


Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man: New York: Simon and Schuster: 1964.

Victim (1961): Public Media Incorporated/ Janus Films: Michael Relph, Producer: Basil Dearden, Director: Screenplay: Janet Green and John McCormick: Length: 100 minutes (black and white).

Richard Dyer: “Victim: Hegemonic Project” in Richard Dyer (ed) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (2nd Edition): London: Routledge: 2002.

Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate: 1996.

Stephen Jeffery-Poulter: Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform: 1950 to the Present: London: Routledge: 1991.

Philip Kemp: “I Wanted Him: Revival-Victim” Sight and Sound: 15:8: (August 2005): 10.

Tags: Politics

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Review: Film: A Single Man (2008) Male Me // Mar 24, 2010 at 1:08 am

    […] post:  Review: Film: A Single Man (2008) By admin | category: young male | tags: adolescent-boys, article, falconer, fords, […]

  • 2 Virginia Hopkins-Burns // Mar 24, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Advanced Screening of A Single Man

    All proceeds go towards producing the 2nd AsiaPacific Outgames, in March 2011!

    Tickets are $20 each, or $18 if you’re a Friend of Wellington2011 Inc.

    Arrival 8pm, screening 8:30pm, Thursday 29 April 2010
    The Penthouse Cinema, Brooklyn, Wellington

    Order tickets via our website,

  • 3 Kay // Mar 24, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I usually expect to get an indication from a film review whether the reviewer liked the movie, what emotions the movie evoked, whether it succeeded in telling the story it set out to tell, and any other artistic merits the movie showcases. This review tells me about the historical background to the movie and the story it tells. I don’t know whether Craig liked the movie or if it was well done or not.

  • 4 Steve // Mar 24, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    It’s not a ‘review’… it’s just context. Plus it gives you MASSIVE SPOILERS if you haven’t read the book.

  • 5 Craig Young // Mar 24, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    For the record, yes, I did enjoy it. As for the massive spoilers angle, note the references to ‘what to expect’ in the linking reference…
    and it’s apparently doing quite well at the UK
    box office, according to Sight and Sound…

  • 6 Alan // Mar 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Hi Craig, thanks for the review. However like Steve I would suggest a greater spolier alert on the actual page as the “what to expect” line on the summary is too subtle.

  • 7 Bill // Mar 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Spoiler? Would telling the ending of Hamlet be a crime?

  • 8 Alan // Mar 27, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Emm Bill not too sure what your point is. If I hadn’t read Hamlet and I read a full review of it, then I probably wouldn’t want to know the ending.

    Same with A Single Man, I havent read the book and was looking forward to the movie, but now I know what happens, so yes it is a spoiler.

  • 9 AJ // Mar 29, 2010 at 4:16 am

    I’m going to have to watch it, although I probably ought not to have read this review, as I’m pissing myself at the last line of the synopsis, “until he suddenly dies from a heart attack”.

  • 10 Andrew // Apr 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    What kind of idiot writes a film review that tells you that the main character dies! Learn how to do a spoiler alert, man! I will never read another movie review on this website again… great job.

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