I’ve always been a sucker for a good thwarted or impossible romance, stories wherein the hero or heroine has to deny or hide his or her passion from his or herself or loved one or the world around him or her. You know, profane love.
Every country has their version. The Italians and French do it in opera, the Latins do it in Magic Realism, and the Americans do it in romantic comedy. But no one does it better than the British.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the English have always excelled at erotic sublimation, and I for one get a big kick out of watching them – I mean, their actors – suffer in noble silence. Yes, “noble silence.” Is this not at the heart of every great Jeremy Irons performance, from Brideshead Revisited all the way up through Damage? (Is he not the noblest screen sufferer since Liv Ullmann? [Yes.])
It’s actors like Irons that make the “lie on your back and think of England” subgenre so cinematic. If you’re not sure, check him out as Proust (Swann in Love), The French Lieutenant (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Kafka (Kafka), either of the two Mantle brothers (Dead Ringers), René Gallimard (M. Butterfly), or Humbert Humbert (guess). You’ve never seen such cold passion.
In the seconds before Irons finally breaks down (and he always does, in an inevitable third act reversal), I always get that here we go rush of Fred Astaire approaching the parquet. His every wrinkle tells of bottomless heart pain beyond imagination, and each quiver of the hope to overcome it. When his moment of wordless eruption at long last arrives, you can’t help but feel a little bit grateful for the opportunity to observe, from the comfort of your home (or theater), nothing less than the destruction of a human being, a man thrown off the cliff of his very own beliefs. But of course it’s just acting. No Limeys were harmed in the making of this motion picture.
So when I heard Colin Firth was going to be doing the minimal thing in A Single Man, I got very excited in a very quiet way. Before I pressed play, I sat in my room, in a wooden chair by the window, stared out onto the street and just thought. If you were to see me, you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, but you would be sure that I was thinking something, and if you were to judge by the muted shadow across half my face, you might reckon it was something serious. You might even be affected by what you were seeing – a man, sitting by a window, looking out onto the street. But what is he feeling?
To read Firth’s face is to squint into the fog at a blade of grass thirty miles away. The only way to know what’s going on in his head is to be told, with a choice flashback, and Tom Ford tells and tells. But this is only performance by association, by implication. Critics love this – they went for it hook, line, and sinker in I’ve Loved You So Long – but remove the actor’s reactions from their context, and they present like the Kuleshov Effect gone bad. That makes Firth’s performance less a performance than an editor’s creation. Noble silence? No, just silence. Without those inserts, you have a man in a chair.
My heart ached more for Firth than his character. He’s a good actor, but no actor can overcome the kind of vacuum Firth was up against in A Single Man. When a boat heads into the wind and looses steerage, sailors call it being “in irons.” When a British actor tries to show you everything by showing you nothing, I call it “not Irons.”