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April 2010
Short Reviews of Books and Films

A Single Man

A Single ManTom Ford's directorial debut is a triumph:  a must-see film, deeply pleasurable on many levels.   For those who don't know (I didn't), Tom Ford is a couturier and parfumier and the film is transformed by the obsessive attention to detail these metiers require.  Everything in the film is elegant.  For example, the single man of the film, George Falconer (played by Colin Firth), drives an utterly perfect late 50s Mercedes-Benz coupe.  The camera frequently focusses on clothes, on furniture, on beauty human and inanimate.  The period detail of early 1960s California is spot on.   The musical score (by Abel Korzeniowski) is beautiful.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Christopher Isherwood.  I read the novel many years ago, so my recollection may be faulty, but I think this is one of those rare cases when a good book is improved in the film version.

Falconer's lover Jim has died, in a car crash, on a visit to his family.  The family  do not acknowledge Falconer's and the killed man's marriage: like Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood themselves, they have been together for nearly two decades.  He is not permitted to attend the funeral.  Ford shows the flashback memories of Falconer's and Jim's life together in lush colours, while the scenes of the present are grey-toned.  

George has decided to take his own life.  His grief for his husband is overwhelming, but can't be expressed, because society doesn't value his marriage.  Some of the most poignant scenes are where he pretends to be OK, for example joking with the neighbour's kids.   The film covers a day in his life, from when he wakens to the alarm, to bedtime.  The tension is extraordinary, as you watch Falconer wrestle with his grief and loss during the course of the day, fondling his pistol, leaving notes for his maid.  

Colin Firth's acting is mesmerising.   Remembered more for his pin-up role as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice,  this film will surely make everybody realise that he is a formidable actor, one of the best of our times.   His acting is consummate, perfect, and utterly convincing.  Every facial expression, every gesture, every sentence exactly right, brilliantly executed.  For Firth, too, this film is a triumph.  Julianne Moore is superb as Falconer's long-ago girlfriend and current best friend.  She alone knows what he's going through, but she herself is vulnerable, wounded by life, and still in love with George.

Kenny, a student from Falconer's class at uni (he teaches English Literature), approaches Falconer, hinting obliquely that he would be interested in more than just the proper professor-student relationship.   This is subtly done (you can feel Ford's touch), but I felt that Kenny had been chosen more for his looks than his ability to act.  It would have been better to have a plain actor, who could realistically convey why he wants to connect with Falconer.  When Kenny says, for example,  "I guess I just thought you looked like you could use a friend," it doesn't convince.  The only flaw in an otherwise sumptuous film.

This is far from your classic Hollywood blockbuster: it is subtle, wise, rich, masterly.   Perhaps even better than Brokeback Mountain,  it invites you to suspend judgement and share the anguish of human existence.    Like Brokeback Mountain, this isn't really a 'gay' movie.  Yet the realities of gay life are intrinsic to the film:  the need for secrecy and pretence because it is a marriage between two men, Falconer's terrible loneliness (something gay men who grew up in that era will know only too well) add a depth which makes this a masterpiece.

Whether you just like good cinema or you like to watch gay flicks, either way, this is a film not to be missed.  Compulsive viewing, brilliant, poignant, near perfect, it will remain in your mind long after the last image flickers off the screen.    

The Stone Prince

This  was Fiona Patton's first novel.  It's a curiously compelling tale, despite theThe-Stone-Prince Image characterisation being shallow and the plot overly complex.  Her vision of a medieval alternative England ('Branion') and Scotland ('Heathland') is fascinating:  a world where same-sex relationships are normal and accepted.  So accepted in fact that all the nobles have 'companions' of their own gender who serve as secretaries, bodyguards and lovers -- without the complication of offspring who could claim  the title and the estates.  Even after marriage these companions remain in service, and may themselves form a bond paralleling that of their employers.  The central thread to this novel is the love between Kehlerus, a companion, and Demnor, heir to the throne.

As well as accepting and welcoming same-sex love, it is also a society where women are equal to men, where  a title is inherited without regard to gender. There is no distinction between, say, duke and duchess or prince and princess: both men and women take what in our world is the male title.  It is at first a litte confusing. When the Duke of Yorbourne turns out to be a woman, it jolts.  And of course, that is the author's intention.  Not just equality of sexual orientation but also absolute equality between the sexes.  A beguiling image.

The nobles in this novel live in as unpleasant a world as George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire quintet, but without the same horrible cynical and dislikable amorality and viciousness of Martin's characters.   At the end of The Stone Prince, you feel better, not worse, despite the brutality.

Perhaps the best aspect of this book, and of the whole series, is the magic.  Unique and gripping, you are transported to a genuinely different world.     Patton's battle scene descriptions also are convincing and compelling, which cannot always be said about sword-and-sorcery fantasies. 

For a first novel, this is a singular accomplishment, and remains very readable despite its flaws.

Nikolaos Thiwerspoon is the author of several romantic m2m and bisexual novels and short stories.  He lives in country Victoria, Australia.

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