Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

A Single Man

Introduction
A Single Man

A Single Man, directed by first time director Tom Ford, was released in 2009. Set on one day in 1962, it is based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, and stars Colin Firth as George Falconer, a middle-aged English college professor living and working in Los Angeles. George is the single man of the title by nature of his homosexuality and because of the death of his lover, Jim played by Matthew Goode in flashback scenes, eight months earlier. Firth won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for the role in 2009 and a BAFTA for best actor in 2010. Tom Ford also won the Queer Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 (an award given to the Best Movie with LGBT Themes & Queer Culture).

As we observe recent negative legal changes pertaining to homosexuality in parts of Africa and in Russia, it is perhaps useful to be reminded of the reality of a closeted life for individuals living in intolerant societies as portrayed in A Single Man. It is interesting to note that, even in twenty first century America, there was some controversy about the marketing of the film, with accusations, by some, that the trailer and the cinema poster had been stripped of any gay content in an attempt to improve the film’s chances of receiving Academy Award nominations.

The Film

A Single Man begins with a dream sequence in which George is suspended naked and alone underwater before a snowy scene breaks through and he approaches the bloodied body of his lover, Jim, and their dog, both lying dead beside a car wreck. The soundtrack becomes dominated by an increasingly rapid heartbeat until George wakes in panic to the day in 1962 in which he decides he cannot go on any longer. His narration states this. The film presents the details of George’s day as he plans to end his life by suicide. He examines the hand gun he has kept in a drawer of his desk and calmly begins the process of placing keys, financial documents and suicide notes on his desk with the suit he wishes to be dressed in after death nearby and a written note asking that his tie be knotted in a particular way. Then he takes a call from his old English friend Charley, played by Julianne Moore, inviting him to dinner that evening.

George lives in an architect designed glass house, at once so open and transparent in contrast to the reality of the closeted life he is forced to live. He observes the family next door through his toilet window as the children play in the garden, compounding the differences between his life and theirs. George is resolved to complete his normal teaching commitments as a college professor that day and drives off from home as usual. In the lecture theatre, George appears unable to connect with his students when he attempts to discuss those individuals in society that are ‘invisible’ or different, except for one student, Kenny, who seems more attracted to George than to the subject of his lecture. Once he has finished teaching, George empties his work desk before preparing to drive away. But at his car he is stopped by his student Kenny, who asks if he is going away because he saw him clear his office. George gives nothing away about his inner thoughts. After leaving campus, George visits his bank to put his finances in order and to remove all of the contents from his safe box, including a naked photo of Jim. The photo triggers a flashback from their earlier life and indeed their relationship is pieced together through the various earlier scenes that are offered throughout the film.

On his way home George stops to buy some alcohol for his dinner with Charley that evening, and meets a young Spanish male gigolo. They share a cigarette and watch the sunset in the car park before George turns down an offer of sex to return home, seeming to enjoy all of these experiences with a newly heightened perceptiveness. It is this change in the quality of his interactions and observations that ultimately seem to beckon him back to the world of the living. However, back home before changing for his dinner date, George rehearses how he will shoot himself and cannot feel quite satisfied with any particular strategy. He arrives at Charley’s home to eat a beautifully prepared meal. They drink and dance to music from the past before she angers George by carelessly dismissing his relationship with Jim as not real or proper just as she expresses hope that they may be able to rekindle a long ago brief sexual encounter. After leaving her home he goes to a bar to buy a bottle of spirits but meets with Kenny who has been following him. They flirt and end up swimming naked in the sea before going back to George’s house where they both fall asleep. When George wakes he finds Kenny sleeping and holding George’s gun under his blanket to prevent George from using it. It becomes clear that Kenny had discovered the meticulous plans for suicide laid out on the desk. George retrieves the gun and locks it back in his drawer before burning all of his suicide notes. Sadly he then slumps on the floor, suffering a fatal collapse just as he has recognised that he might be ready to embrace life again.


Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

A Single Man presents a portrait of bereavement stifled by anti-gay sentiment that prevents George from attending his partner’s funeral or even being formally told of his death by Jim’s family. George’s recurrent flashbacks perhaps represent an attempt to work through the loss without the usual rituals, in a society where he is unable to openly talk about or share his grief with anyone. The only person he can tell is his old English friend Charley, who is struggling to deal with her own psychological distress and who is drinking heavily, after the breakdown of her marriage. Even worse, Charley persists in expressing an unhelpful desire to rekindle an early liaison with George despite his declared homosexuality and the recent loss of his partner Jim.

As the film examines the day in which George has decided to end his life, A Single Man offers a very good opportunity to discuss the topic of assessing suicidal risk, perhaps alongside a reading of the 2013 article by Alys Cole-King, Victoria Parker, Helen Williams and Stephen Platt, entitled Suicide prevention: are we doing enough? (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2013) 19: 284-291, abstract). In another relevant article published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2005, by Joe Bouch and John James Marshall, entitled Suicide risk: structured professional judgement (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2005) 11: 84-91) the case of UK government scientist Dr David Kelly’s unexpected suicide is discussed, and a comment is made as follows:

“First, suicide may not be predictable. Second, multiple risk factors are not always present in high-risk individuals. Only one or two risk factors present to a serious degree may be sufficient. Third, risk can escalate rapidly over a short period (and, if the outcome is not fatal, may just as quickly subside).”

As Mental Health professionals encountering bereaved individuals we must be sensitive to the unique nature of each person’s loss (whether actual or perceived) when seeking to assess their potential suicide risk and to be aware that masked symptoms of depression may hide their real intent. A Single Man offers a valuable portrait of such a presentation, which could usefully inform a teaching session on this important topic.

• More information about A Single Man can be found at IMDB, as can a short trailer.

A Single Man can be purchased from amazon.co.uk.

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

 

Subscribe to this post's comments using RSS

Comments

Add a Comment
  • Security Verification:
    Type the numbers you see in the picture below.
    Type the numbers you see in this picture.
     
Login - Members Area

If you don't have an account please Click here to Register

Make a Donation

 

About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.