The idea of Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela in Invictus is not only dull, it’s redundant. That’s why this week’s most remarkable acting is by Colin Firth in A Single Man. It reveals seldom-depicted emotional complexity, while Invictus invites Freeman to do more variations on godlike dignity.
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, treads the gray area between gay white male privilege and unabashed narcissism. He adapts Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel about George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British professor who enjoys middle-class Los Angeles luxuries—though with an outsider’s isolation—when the sudden death of his lover throws him into brooding self-pity. Ford flashes back to Falconer meeting his younger lover, a sleek ex-military man (Matthew Goode) in contrast to the mourner’s ironic pursuit by a young student (Nicholas Hoult) in a white mohair sweater.
The film is swathed in early 1960s style (just like TV’s Mad Men) because Ford sees male vanity as a form of self-consciousness. Ford’s style isn’t original; he indulges the same neophyte’s artiness as Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and Everrett Lewis’ The Natural History of Parking Lots—a kind of designer queerness—but Firth cuts through the sentimental fabric with Falconer’s crumbling defenses. His grief, horniness and anger are each precisely proportioned despite scenes that drift from showcasing mood to attitude. It is the year’s most subtle movie acting and the finest performance of Firth’s career.
Firth has worked up to Falconer starting with his gay role in 1984’s Another Country, then recently in Mamma Mia! and St. Trinian’s. His heterosexual bids, like in Bridget Jones’ Diary, were never so ardent; his bland virility seems stirred by his male costars’ prettiness. Falconer’s implicit chicken-hawk yearning (also the subtext of last year’s affecting Isherwood documentary Chris and Don) creates a rare portrait of gay masculine audacity. While Ford tends to celebrate it, Firth’s reserve checks it so that Falconer/Isherwood’s alternative-life indulgences (including suicidal melodrama) are not overly romanticized.
Invictus practices a cynical romanticism in director Clint Eastwood’s deification of Mandela. You have to look at it as an Obama allegory—the almost comic proposition of a black man elected president in a racist, white-minority country. Otherwise, its story of Mandela becoming South Africa’s president—presumably for the primary purpose of encouraging the country’s Springbok rugby team to win the World Cup—seems a lunatic combination of the messianic and the idiotic. Eastwood prevents Freeman from doing an in-depth characterization, it’s all surface: Mandela’s tall, slightly stooped stance and measured speech.
Remember how the real Mandela’s appearance at the end of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X dead-assed the already overlong movie with incomprehensible speechifying? Apparently Eastwood decided to answer last year’s war-of-words with Lee by making this Mandela biopic. Problem is, Lee’s the superior director of pop-art polemics. Eastwood has no grasp of symbolism, metaphor and declines vivid imagery; the last half-hour is a tedious, literal rugby match (footballers’ haunches straining and pushing against each other). Eastwood bungles his subject. Essentially, Invictus is just like Cry Freedom where a black hero needs a white box office counterbalance (Matt Damon as South Africa rugby star François Pienaar). When Freeman’s stoic, astute Mandela answers every question, contention and dissatisfaction with divine wisdom (or a sports-fan smile) he dead-asses this movie, too.
But A Single Man isn’t a popularity contest. Instead, its hermetic tone has the quality of a looking-in-the-mirror ego-examination. Male desire and self-regard (that longing for the boy in himself) are genuine obsessions, if far from the Death in Venice profundity that Isherwood or Tom Ford intended. Julianne Moore’s confidante role provides necessary balance, although her Britishisms are too much of an act. It makes Colin Firth’s diffidence that much more admirable. His superlatively discreet characterization does honor to the legacy of gray-area performances by Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Finch and Alan Bates by matching their delicacy, strength and authenticity.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 134 min.
A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
Runtime: 99 min.
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