I am writing this review because I find myself a little uncomfortable with many of the reviews I have read so far: these have generally been a bit snippy about the cinematography, calling it variously 'tart' or 'air-brushed'. Peter Bradshaw, in the Guardian, writes that the film looks 'like an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men's cologne: Bereavement by Dior'.
Ok. Fine. This is nicely expressed, but I think hugely unfair and if I may be so bold, somewhat misses the point. I would really like to read a review written by a fashion expert, because there is clearly another kind of language being used in the making of this film and it is one that has thrown a lot of the film reviewers.
The story is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel, published in 1964, and tells of George Falconer (Colin Firth) who is in the midst of a deep, sad, quiet grief at the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode). George wakes up that morning and decides that today he will commit suicide: the pain is just too much.
The day is spent saying nice things to people who had never really noticed him before, and silently observing his surroundings. That is, his last day, because of this terrible decision, becomes filled with significance. George is a college professor teaching English to a class of students who are trying to make sense of the Cuban missile crises. Rather, they are trying to make sense of the crises as it is being presented to them by their parents, and, in turn, by their government. George takes the opportunity to run over time in a class that is dragging on to explain that fear is really what is at stake, not the threat itself. He goes around to his friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore), talks about the old days and the disappointments their lives have become and despite this closeness, even Charley doesn't understand what he is going through.
This is such an important aspect of the film. Nobody understands what George is feeling, the depths and the scale of his grief, his bereavement. And everything that Ford does reinforces it. The nostalgic glaze, the beautiful beautiful images throughout the film are all inextricably linked with the impossibility of George's life and the inevitability of his death.
Another critic complained that we are held at arm's length from George, that we never get to know him and that we never feel his grief. Well, not feeling his grief will vary from person to person, but being held at arm's length is very much the point. It is what he does with everyone, because he has to, and what presents his grief with such a terrible aspect of closed-ness, or inexpressibility. It is expressible because of its scale, but also because it is in the first place.
There is great sadness in this film, but it is not an emotional film. And that for me was its most powerful feature. I found it all the more powerful because I was not weeping at the end of it. Enough of the film assures me that Ford knows what he's doing, and in this too I believe he knew what he was doing. As viewers we are denied participation in the grief, and this denial is so subtly and delicately negotiated.
Quite unlike a cologne, this beautiful film has stayed with me.
I am bereft.