Singularly impressive Tom Ford’s moving adaptation of Isherwood’s novel avoids all the usual homosexual film clichés
rief is the price we pay for love,” was the Queen’s message to the American people after 9/11. That seems exactly right. But in everyday life, many delay the final accounting. Some put off payment altogether. Others have the courage to look at the bill square-on, but find that for them, the cost is simply too great to bear.
One such is George, the single man of the title of Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, which has just been adapted for the screen. George, played by Colin Firth, is an English college lecturer in early Sixties, pre-countercultural California, a place of effortless golden-limbed sunniness. But he makes his way through this world like a dead man walking. Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, has been killed in a road accident and he now operates like a human being only on the outside. Grief has hollowed him out.
A Single Man (on release 12 February) follows him over the space of a day: his fastidious early morning grooming routine; his journey to work; the pleasantries he exchanges with neighbours; and his conversations with Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his best friend from earlier London days. Thoughts and memories of Jim come in flashback. The only distinctive thing to happen is a series of encounters with one of his young students (Nicholas Hoult), a boy who senses that there is something wrong about his teacher, something that might shed light on his own emotional confusion. This being the early Sixties, little is spelt out between them. George lives with his emptiness in secret.
Rereading those paragraphs above—gay relationships, death, suppressed mourning—I can see how this film might seem to hold little for a wide audience. That doesn’t stop it from being a remarkably powerful, beautiful one. Being gay myself has much to do with this. I have watched thousands of movies and even now, in 2009, it comes as an utter, blessed relief for me to see one depicting a relationship between men that doesn’t just revolve around the obstacles against a youthful “coming out”, or a death from Aids, or an addiction to dancing and shopping. A Single Man is an adult film, George, Jim and Charlotte are grown-ups and the themes which give rise to the story—the disappointments of age, the nature of love, how one continues when the most valued part of one’s life has been ripped out of it—are of the sort which our infantilised society increasingly refuses even to acknowledge, let alone discuss.
The film is directed by Tom Ford, known to you, I’m sure, as a fashion designer, the face for some time of the newly-revived Gucci. Ford, self-conscious and preening on the red carpet, has always struck me as the epitome of an unlikeable metrosexual sensibility.
So initially my heart had sunk at the prospect of an over-produced, under-nourished piece of style fetishism. Certainly, there are moments when he has obviously reined in (or been forced to rein in) a strongly developed love of the look of things, of mid-century modernism and the way a jacket creases. The characters are all better looking than they would probably be, even in California. But these are quibbles. Ford’s entry into movie-making is genuinely impressive. The surfaces are there and they gleam, but they remain just that—surfaces. They never get in the way of what is an enormously detailed, humane exploration of the effect one life can have on another.
Above all however, the film’s power is down to Colin Firth. I have never quite understood the appeal of Firth, and his screen presence I generally find chilly and supercilious, wet-shirted or otherwise. But as George, he demonstrates the very essence of great film acting: he does so little, and conveys so much. There is no thrashing about, no wild gestures. It all happens beneath the skin. From the moment he constructs himself in the mirror first thing in the morning, to the brief, sweet connection he makes with his neighbour’s little girl,
there isn’t a moment when you don’t believe him. The pain he endures, etched in his movements and the awkwardness of his social encounters, becomes equally unbearable for us to witness.
Or not, perhaps, for everybody. When I watched A Single Man, I was faced with the imminent death of one beloved. The critic who claims to be able to divorce himself from his own condition when considering the work before him is, I think, being dishonest. Our judgment is clouded just as much by happiness as by sadness. But perhaps it also means that we become more acutely aware of the fake and the fraudulent. The cinema is full of ersatz suffering, including much which one might once have considered nuanced and authentic. One becomes very alive to anything remotely near the truth. And that, in its way, gives us comfort.
Grown-ups: Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in “A Single Man”
Spooked by Islamists Watching the latest batch of spy thrillers, you’d never guess who the real enemy was
Ayear after the 9/11 atrocities, I made a documentary for Channel 4 which involved trying to discover what had happened to terrorist suspects the prison service was holding without charge. The director filmed me putting questions to a lowlevel functionary at the Home Office press office. We hoped he would stonewall and thus unwittingly illustrate a sequence about Whitehall secrecy. Fortunately for us, he obfuscated like a true PR. Channel 4 wanted a witty line in the commentary to emphasise how hard it was to extract information that should be freely available. The best I could manage was “It’s easier to have a beer with Osama bin Laden than get this government to answer a question.” I accept that I was never going to get the viewers rolling off their sofas and clutching their aching sides, but the commissioning editor’s response took me aback. Absolutely not. Cut it out. It’s offensive.
But we were at war with al-Qaeda, I protested. Osama bin Laden is the enemy of this country and its best values. Why should I worry about offending him? He was equally taken aback by my insubordination. Like the Home Office press office, he did not think he had to answer presumptuous questions from journalists. After spending years watching the London media class at work and play, I guessed that three emotions were whirring round in his mind: 1) Fear. Ever since the Rushdie affair, British editors have feared that criticism of radical Islamists will lead to attacks on their staff and, more pertinently, on themselves. Suppressed panic explains why British newspapers did not follow European and indeed Middle Eastern newspapers in running the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. Although it is absurd to believe that a weak joke about bin Laden would provoke jihadis into bombing Channel 4’s glass and steel headquarters in Westminster, cowards die many times before their deaths and once cowed editors have killed one story, they will kill hundreds more. 2) Racism. Although few television executives say so explicitly, most believe that the bulk of British Muslims support al-Qaeda in an inchoate way. Offending the enemy therefore means offending multiculturalism. If the accusation of “Islamophobia” carries any meaning, it must condemn the assumption that all Muslims are terrorist sympathisers. Although they say they don’t accept the calumny in theory, most in television behave as if they do in practice. 3) Conformism. Once small bands of people have established a prohibition, it is ferociously difficult to shake them out of it. British TV managers are indistinguishable in class, beliefs and tastes. They socialise with each other and swap information and jobs. As any anthropologist will tell you, taboobreakers in a closed society risk the censure of the tribe.
All three have combined to produce one of the strangest features of mass culture in the Noughties. We have been at war since the autumn of 2001. Our intelligence services spend virtually all their time countering Islamist plots. Yet Islamist violence barely features in thrillers. Whether the public gets what the public wants or the public wants what the public gets is always an open question, but the spy dramas that have won the largest audiences and greatest critical praise all daintily step around the jihadist in the room.
The Bourne trilogy set the pattern. His intelligence service’s enemies do not menace the hero. Rather, his intelligence service first turns Matt Damon into a killing machine, and then tries vainly to kill him when he threatens to find out too much about its plots. The real enemy of Damon and Western society is within. The producers of the clearly ailing Bond series took note of Bourne’s success. They revived the franchise by finding a new adversary in the vast “Quantum” conspiracy that operates across continents. Not the Jihadist International, strangely, but a group of powerful men operating at the highest levels of Western government, who rig the world to suit the interests of the corrupt Western corporations they serve. As Mr White crows to Bond and M when they confront him, “You really don’t know anything about us…You don’t even know we exist. The first thing you should know about us is we have people everywhere.”
For connoisseurs of the issue-avoiding thriller, however, nothing beats Spooks. The real MI5 deals with radical Islam almost to the exclusion of all other threats. The BBC’s fictional MI5 deals with every threat except radical Islam. I appreciate there are better ways to spend my time, but every week I am transfixed by the effort the corporation puts into steering clear of al-Qaeda. In 2005, when real Islamists were bombing London, Spooks seemed to be a truly contemporary drama. Alas, the terrorists it had plotting to destroy London weren’t the followers of Sayyid Qutb but anti-technology Greens, who, say what you will about them, are on the whole a peaceful lot. In 2006, an Islamist cell was once again threatening to commit a crime against humanity. Inevitably, the writers could not confront the existence of actual terrorists and the Islamists turned out to be Mossad agents in disguise. For the BBC, as for the European and Arab farRight, all Islamist atrocities were the work of the international Jewish conspiracy, that manipulates its dupes like a puppet-master jerking his strings. In the opening episode of the current series, the Sacred Army of Righteous Vengeance staged a mock execution of Harry Pearce, the head of MI5’s Counter-Terrorism Department. But, initiates wondered, why would they want to kill him when the BBC has already made it clear that there are no Islamist terrorists for MI5 to counter? True to form, the Sacred Army of Righteous Vengeance turned out to be yet another front organisation attempting to besmirch the good name of al-Qaeda, this time run by Hindu extremists.
First the Greens, then the Jews, then the Hindus—baffled viewers will be expecting the English Quakers and Burmese Buddhists next. Maybe the BBC will get round to them, but as the eighth series of Spooks draws to its conclusion, we know that for the time being at least, the scriptwriters have identified the real enemy. Episode by episode, Harry and his team have learned about a conspiracy of awesome power. As with Bourne and Bond, it is a cabal that has established itself at the highest levels of Western intelligence services. Once again, the good guys must fight the real menace that comes from the enemy within.
We have been at war since 9/11. To judge from popular drama, we have been at war with ourselves.
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne: Killing machine who became a target