Colin Firth stars as a fiftyish British-born professor at a college in LA in the 1960s. He is a closeted gay man who lost his long-time lover and partner in life (Matthew Goode, in flashbacks/visions) about six months ago in a car accident. Now he is grief-stricken, and believing that he has lost the one reason to go on living (and the only other person in his life who truly understood what it was like to be gay in 60s America), he is planning on killing himself. A seeming connection with one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) seems like it might distract him from those plans, however. At least momentarily. Meanwhile, he is in infrequent contact with his one close friend, played by Julianne Moore as another relocated Brit who is in a very sorry state herself. Ginnifer Goodwin appears briefly as a friendly neighbour.
A brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance by Colin Firth is the chief selling point of this 2009 drama from debutant director and fashion designer Tom Ford. Firth has this quality to him where he’s almost dull but thoroughly decent and inherently sympathetic and he’s absolutely spot-on here in a heart-breaking portrayal of a man who feels that his one reason for living is now gone. Your heart aches for him in this film, and for the most part it is a sad and really haunting experience. I’m not sure why, but the film also had me thinking about films like “Accident” and “Victim”, both starring Dirk Bogarde and made in the 60s. Julianne Moore, playing a Brit, is slightly affected, but I believe that’s an affect adopted by her character, who is putting on an act to hide her own issues. By the end of one scene in particular, you really see what’s going on. This woman is in love with Firth and is dreadfully lonely on top of that.
Unfortunately, there are a few things that just stop this film short of being as effective a motion picture as it could’ve been. Chief among these is Ford’s design of the film. The clothes horse just can’t help but overdesign it all, even though he’s actually not the credited costume designer as one might expect. There’s just a little too much emphasis on hairstyles, colour and so forth to the point where it sticks out, rather than feeling organic. It’s a little hyperreal and completely at odds with what is otherwise something so very real, and quite intimate. Totally unnecessary, and perhaps someone else should’ve directed it. That’s a shame, not only because this is an incredibly moving film otherwise, but also because Ford quite clearly was trying his best to get the details right. He tried, but perhaps tried too hard, and it just took me out of the drama a little. You’re not Michael Powell or Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes”), dude. Just tell the damn story.
The other big problem I had with the film was the ending. For a painful and moving story, this film finds the absolute most inappropriately devastating manner in which to end. It’s just too depressing and made me angry, not sad or moved. Whether this is the novel’s ending or not is irrelevant. It’d be like following “Precious” for two hours, have her escape her depressing squalor, only to then be hit by a bus and killed. I mean, come on! It’s meant to bring a tragic irony, but so what? Why is there a need to bring a sense of tragic irony? To be cool and swerve the audience? Fuck off. There’s no need for a gimmick here in an otherwise beautifully restrained and understated film. Maybe if Firth’s character were a decade or two older, the ending might’ve worked better and achieved its poetic irony, but as is...Hell no.
I also found it strange that there was such a mixture of not only British and American actors but British and American characters in a film set in the US (With Brit actor Nicholas Hoult playing an American and American actress Julianne Moore playing a relocated Brit). What was that about? Also, the relationship between Firth and Hoult lacked a little bit of clarity and definition for me, it bordered on half-arsed.
Overall, this is a sad film with a truly moving, subtly nuanced turn by Colin Firth (forcing a calm demeanour when he is truly crumbling on the inside), who has never been better and quite possibly will never match this performance, either. He’s that impressive here, and is almost guaranteed to bring the hardest of hearts to tears. Ford co-wrote the screenplay with David Scearce, from a Christopher Isherwood (“The Great Sinner”, “The Loved One”, “Diane”) novel. Isherwood, for what it’s worth, was a Brit (and gay, too) who had a long stay in Hollywood.