As expected, Colin Firth's nuanced performance lived up to the Oscar Buzz that has been swirling around him lately. I'm reluctant to predict a win for him for Best Actor, however, since Jeff Bridges seems to have built up unstoppable momentum with his wins at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards for his turn in Crazy Heart. Still, in my mind, Firth remains the undisputed master of portraying repressed characters, in whom a storm of emotions rage beneath a carefully constructed facade. In A Single Man, Firth plays a gay man who has lost his partner in a car accident. Due to the conventions of his time (the 1960s), he is forced to publicly deny the depth of his loss and his despair. In one particularly devastating scene, his partner's family calls with news of the funeral arrangements, only to coldly inform Firth's character that the service will be "family only." In another, even his best friend suggests that his love for his partner might have just been misguided in the absence of an appropriate woman. Firth handles both scenes with finesse; indeed, his performance is the highlight of the film as a whole.
Interestingly, first-time director Tom Ford (former creative director of Gucci and Yves St. Laurent) brings a fashion designer's attention to detail to the film, lingering over images of crisply folded shirts and luxuriously soft-looking sweaters. Also, as a gay man directing a story about a gay man, Ford presents a fascinating reversal of the typical directorial "male gaze." According to feminist film theorists, in traditional filmmaking in which the director is a heterosexual male, the audience is forced to assume the gaze of a heterosexual man when the camera is turned upon a woman. The prototypical example of this occurs when the camera literally looks a woman up and down, focusing on her gender-specific features. The woman is thereby reduced to a sex object, present only for the enjoyment of the male audience. In A Single Man, the opposite is true. Long, lingering shots of the male anatomy are commonplace throughout the film. The effect is simultaneously refreshing and unnerving. As an audience, we are not taught by society to appreciate the male form in such a manner, but I enjoyed the role reversal. Perhaps this is common in films by gay directors -- I haven't seen enough of them to make a judgement on the subject.
As a result, I wouldn't recommend A Single Man to everyone. I think it takes an open-mind to fully appreciate its asthetic. Still, if you are a Colin Firth fan, (which I most definitely am) I think you owe it to yourself to check out his performance -- after Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, I think it's one of his best roles.