A grief observed

I am on record as saying that I’m not sure great novels should be adapted to film at all. This feeling was in response to yet another bowdlerised or botched translation to celluloid and in nervous anticipation of the forthcoming film versions of two of my favourite books: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, now made into a movie by fashion designer Tom Ford, and The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which John Boorman is working on as we speak (reportedly with Daniel Craig as the Roman emperor, when it should really be someone more like Bob Hoskins).

A Single Man is now on our screens.This novella or short novel was always going to be hard to adapt, whether by an experienced scriptwriter or a first-time writer-director such as Ford. As in so many works of fiction, much of its impact depends on the running mental commentary of the central figure, in this case a British university professor living in California in the early 1960s.

Like Ulysses, but on a considerably more modest scale, A Single Man takes place on a single day, a day in the life of George Falconer, who has recently lost his partner of many years, Jim, and is still in the weird space between overwhelming grief and the resurgence of a survival instinct that will drive him to forget and find a way to live on.

What happens to George in the course of that day is fairly banal. He gets up, goes to work, gives a lecture, visits a dying acquaintance, goes to the gym, goes to a friend’s house for dinner, and so on. It’s not really so much about what happens to George on that day but how he feels about it, how he narrates it to himself, how he weaves the quotidian detail of his life into what has gone before.

All that has had to go, naturally, in an adaptation to film. How on earth to put on film George’s complex ruminations, developing into a wild fantasy, about what he’d do to fight back against a local newspaper editor who is stirring up an anti-gay moral panic?

It’s one of the funniest episodes of the novel, but it’s probably unfilmable. And how to “satisfy the sad fierce appetite of memory”, as the book so beautifully puts it? A film can provide flashbacks, certainly (and there is a key one in Ford’s film, predictably in black and white), but it can’t really deal with memory as a way of feeling and functioning in the world.

And there is surely no way a movie, however complex or laden with voice-over, could produce the layers of irony in the moment when George imagines, in indirect third-person speech, what a relatively liberal neighbour might think or say about him as a homosexual in this Year of our Lord, AD 1962: “Let us even go so far as to say that this kind of relationship can sometimes be almost beautiful — particularly if one of the parties is already dead ...”

We have to accept that the interiority of fiction can only be intimated in a movie. But what about events? Ford gives us only the extemporaneous addendum to George’s lecture on Aldous Huxley’s novel After Many a Summer (it is, very relevantly, about living on beyond your span), let alone his diversion into Greek myth and the Tennyson poem (Tithonus) from which Huxley takes his title. Too literary, no doubt. He omits George’s visit to an acquaintance who’s dying in hospital and, perhaps more surprisingly, George’s trip to the gym.

Instead, we get George contemplating suicide, which is not in the book at all. Ford pulls some good, dark comedy from this, though my sense (at least at first) was that such thoughts were at odds with George’s basic survival instinct as portrayed in the novel.
What Ford and his film most assuredly cannot do is pose a “what if?” scenario, as the novel does at its conclusion. Here is the narrative equivalent of the subjunctive tense: writing is able to contain a view of what is outwardly happening and a speculation on what could (also) be happening, without finally deciding for the reader where the line falls between what is and what might be.

There isn’t the cinematic language to do this. Voice-over won’t help in this case unless it’s the voice of a godlike omniscient narrator, which would thrust us out of the intimate closeness of our connection with the characters. Maybe an Alain Resnais could do it, given the time and the space, but such an attempt is likely to be even more confusing for the viewer than other attempts at narrative ambiguity. I foresee something like I Still Don’t Know What You Did Last Year at Marienbad ...

At any rate, that problem at the movie’s end was the most troublesome moment for me. Others found the whole movie troublesome, in that it looks very much like what it is— the first feature film by someone who has already had a successful career as a fashion designer. The main complaint about A Single Man is that it is over-designed, over-styled, over-aestheticised. It’s like Ford can’t help turning everything he films into something that looks like a fashion ad, albeit in this case a carefully contrived period ad—and one from which all visual ugliness has been expunged.

The film is certainly very nice to look at, even if that’s a little distracting. Ford is apparently compelled to create as beautiful a setting as possible for grieving George’s single day, from the perfectly cut and hung clothes to the immaculately decorated interiors. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian has, hilariously, tagged this as an exemplar of a sort of perfume-ad sensibility— “Bereavement by Dior”.

Some have found the film’s style excessive and alienating; others have argued that it’s appropriate that George, on what may be his last day on Earth, is hypersensitive to the beauty around him (which might be a kind of pathetic fallacy). One commentator said on the Guardian site that it was appropriate because George is gay and gay men are so much more attuned to the aesthetic. Myself, I wouldn’t go that far, but even if the film’s style is rather suffocating it can be read as part of George’s condition—the claustrophobia of grief, as well as that of feeling the world is in fact too much with us, even in its beauty.

I did find the depiction of George’s lovely house a bit much. It just didn’t seem like the kind of place a middle-aged university lecturer would live, though the film partly justifies this by making his late partner an architect, so maybe that’s okay, and it’s certainly a very nice house.

I had more of a problem with Ford’s tendency to slap us with an extreme close-up whenever he seems to feel the emotional impact of a scene slipping from his grasp. But that may be part of what Ford brings to the film, which is the work of what you might call a very talented amateur. He hasn’t fully mastered the rules and conventions of this kind of filmic narration, which means that in some parts it’s slightly inept, but in others there is an exhilarating sense of freedom from the old clichés.

Everyone agrees, at least, that Colin Firth gives a magnificent performance as George, and that Julianne Moore is superb in the chief supporting role. Both actors are indeed note-perfect—in style, in period, in feeling. When Firth and Moore are together on screen, it veritably glows.

You can see A Single Man as a marvellous central performance trapped in an over-styled film, as some have, or you can enjoy the style. Ford is most emphatically not doing (or not able to do) what Todd Haynes did in Far from Heaven, where the style is a comment on the genre of the film, on its history and antecedents, and so an innate part of the movie’s being. Ford’s style is to some degree detachable, like one of those clip-on bow ties.

If nothing else, see A Single Man for Firth, for his ability to communicate powerful emotion while playing someone who is emotionally restrained. We may not be able to get into George Falconer’s head, as such, in the movie, but we can get George as embodied by Firth, and—as it turns out— that’s nearly as good.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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