On Colin Firth & Julianne Moore, Ken Branagh & Kurt Wallander, and the Hurt Locker
Movies can make you cry, so can TV. Pop songs manage it frequently, classical occasionally. Books now and then, and theatre almost never. Art, once in a lifetime.
Recall Noel Coward: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”
Oscar-nominated Colin Firth in A Single Man can wring your heart and maybe your tearducts too. Kenneth Branagh as the detective Kurt Wallander in a BBC series is even more likely to prompt a salty tear. Extraordinary how effective cheap drama can be.
A Single Man
New York’s Village Voice thought that Tom Ford, fashion designer and first-time director of A Single Man, showed “affection for art direction over actual direction.” I can’t top that but can only concur – then again Mr Ford did fund it himself, so he wins. The film and its characters are tremendously self-absorbed and beautiful. And none of it is very happy. Still, Tom of Fordland* has given us Colin Firth, and Julianne Moore.
In an early scene, George (Firth) receives a phone call, which gives the film its title. George is an English closet case transplanted to LA in the early 60s. In the 60s, they were all closet cases. As the phone caller (the voice of Jon Hamm, Mad Men‘s Don Draper) gives his terrible news – that George’s unacknowledged partner has been killed in a car accident, we see George’s life-long facade, practiced and maintained daily, crack ever so ineluctably, a glacier calving an shelf. It’s the sight of his face, the opposite of histrionic, as it slowly and irrevocably loses its struggle for control that tugs, or punches, at our hearts. Firth’s performance is a pure and self-contained vehicle, uncorrupted by its luxurious landscape.
(Spoiler alert; but not much here to spoil) The second chance for the viewer to lose it is a strange affair – we follow George to a dinner at the home, or house, rather, of Charly – Charlotte (Julianne Moore), an old London compatriot and glamourous divorcee. As George arrives at the door we see a flashback of another, rainy night arrival, as George bawls into Charly’s arms after the fateful phonecall. (Moore puts on a super London good time girl accent.) On this occasion the two old chums, both beautiful and tremendously self-absorbed and unhappy, rehearse again what must be a punctuating episode in their relationship – they get smashed and dance – in an English way – to groovy music, make hurtful remarks and Charly throws herself at her unrequited love. George drags himself away, disgusted at Charly and himself and more than ever determined to follow through his plan. Only another narcissist could resist the sorrow of this grim comedy.
Anton Chekov said that if you hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, then in the following it should be fired. Tom of Fordland introduces a gun very early on – because you see, not only is this George self-abosorbed, he is suicidal. It’s worth pointing out that in Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same title, there was narry a sign of a gun. But then Mr Ford would likely have a few fashion tips for both Mr Isherwood and Mr Chekov, writers that they are. That alone may be enough to make you weep.
Rather than the original Swedish adaptation of Mankell’s crime novels, I got the subtitle-free BBC version to spare my old father-in-law’s eyesight. As the hero Kurt Wallander, Kenneth Branagh is rather less than obese, as a true-to-book Wallander would be, but delivers a very enagaging characterisation.
Wallander is famously put-upon and slobby and unfit and depressive, being recently and reluctantly divorced. Branagh’s Kurt is dishevelled and stubbly (never can find his shaving cream), his boyish good looks suitably interrupted by red bags and unkempt hair and general slouchiness. He looks like an upmarket hobo, bone-weary and sad. Any woman might want to mother him. Hell, I wanted to mother him. But he has no time for life; work beckons.
It’s a police drama so it’s all about crime and punishment – as adapted here it’s also a full-on exercise in guilt. Except the guilt becomes the burden of the the good guy. Wallander’s trick is that he keeps taking things – his work – personally. If things go wrong it’s his fault. And the bags get redder and his stubble scruffier and it’s a credit to the tolerance of Swedish society that no one rings the cops to report him. I’m obliged to say that a lot of Wallander’s reactions seem quite feckless, urgently rushing off from one spot to the next when a call from his mobile might be more effective, or not calling for backup as he goes in to meet a killer. But he’s not “a police,” as they say in The Wire, he’s an entertainer.
The third of the three films on the DVD set supplies the climactic guilt trip. First, Wallander thinks he has inadvertently betrayed a colleague; paying more attention to work than his friend. Then he thinks he has failed a young woman who he is saving or protecting from a serial killer. And lastly he sees he has lethally compromised his daughter. By the end one doesn’t know whether to reach for the wine or the chocolates or the tissue box.
The Hurt Locker
I should say straight out that, on reflection, Avatar should have beaten The Hurt Locker to the Oscar for Best Film. But in space no one can hear you cry.
Back down on earth, in Baghdad, to be exact, we have, if not tears, then lots of hurt. Here’s my reading of the Hurt Locker – it’s a film about an obsessive artist. When I explained this theory to a friend she said no no you mean he’s just a workaholic – it’s a film about someone who prefers work to anything else.
But that doesn’t quite get to my point. What Sergeant William James (what a name! brains and guts) wants is an occupation that will save him from what he sees as the unresolvable and messy trivia and tribulations of ordinary life. He discovers he has a genius, and the army will do all it can to aid and abet this gift; feeding and housing him and providing companions and equipment. James is fearless, a “wild man” at defusing bombs, IEDs – it’s work that truly is a matter of life or death. At that existential moment nothing intrudes on the purity of being. Non-existence is only one mistaken wire-snip away. And so James returns again and again to the site of what might be his death, or yet another deliverance from this vale of tears.
That’s what the inner artist desires – police or firefighter, mathematician or musician, pilot or painter, sailor or surgeon – to meet the moment and become an uncontained horizon of understanding. To become meaning.
TV reminder: Don’t forget to watch Simon Schama’s Power of Art on ABC2 Sunday evening. There’re two episodes left: Picasso and Rothko. And you can access the Van Gogh episode on the ABC’s excellent iView.
*Tom of Fordland is my little joke. Tom of Finland is the Finnish (of course) artist famous for inventing the butch gay persona, the leatherman look – bikers, cops, uniforms; highly exaggerated masculine forms – his art was the inspiration for the Village People. Tom of Fordland is rather more interested in the sleek, svelte and suave. Tom of Fordland – smooth porn; Tom of Finland – crunchy porn.