Itâ€™s 1962, stylishly retro and way cool. TVâ€™s Mad Men have paved the cultural way for two more stellarÂ entries in the Sex And The Sixties pantheon. With the swinging sixties loomingÂ right on the horizon, Los Angeles college literature professor George (ColinÂ Firth) and sixteen year old suburban London student Jenny (Carey Mulligan)Â fumble their un-merry ways through the rough-and-tumble terrain of love, loss,Â secrets, and sexual experience. Both lead performances have stirred upÂ considerable Academy Award buzz, but theyâ€™re unlikely to compete head to headÂ anywhere but right here. Smackdown: Dewy Maiden with Distinct Audrey HepburnÂ Echoes takes on World-Weary Confirmed Bachelor with a Not-So-Secret Secret. TheÂ winner? A grateful arthouse (and beyond) audience.
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In This Corner
Ladies first. Screenwriter Nick Hornby brings Lynn Barberâ€™sÂ scathing memoir to beautiful life in Danish director Lone Scherfigâ€™s â€œAnÂ Education.â€ Perfectly capturing a specific moment of early sixties and lateÂ adolescence, the film eloquently speaks to larger themes and issues than theÂ usual coming of age tome. Jenny rises above unrelenting suburban parentalÂ pressure with a charming if scandalous mixture of sardonic acceptance andÂ outright rebellion. Jennyâ€™s acceptance to Oxford means everything to herÂ father, so much so that his tunnel vision blinds him to the threats and dangersÂ lurking right in his living room. Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard) aÂ predatory seducer twice her age, and that troubling relationship gains her parentsâ€™Â tacit approval. The easy glamour of fast cars, hustling and high livingÂ supplant Jennyâ€™s studies and test her values, and a remarkably unprepared JennyÂ faces big life decisions.
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In That Corner
FashionÂ designer Tom Fordâ€™s dÃ©butÂ directing and screenwriting feature is adapted from the novel by ChristopherÂ Isherwood. The film is a stylish thing to behold; what might have been gimmickyÂ color trickery gives way to emotionally resonant cinematic expression of timeÂ and memory. The performances are incredibly touching though the story isÂ slight; most of the action takes place in twenty-four hours in Georgeâ€™s life.Â We meet Colin Firthâ€™s George, deeply bereaved after the death of his â€œlongtimeÂ companionâ€ Matthew â€œLeap Yearâ€ Goode. As his relationship was secret, so mustÂ be his overwhelming grief and heartbreak. A more eloquent and spare argumentÂ for the efficacy and importance of legitimizing gay marriage would be difficultÂ to mount. The film skips back and forth in time, as George relives the loversâ€™Â first meeting and many other telling, small, and truly felt domestic moments.Â Colin Firth carries the film with a big assist from the always-lovely,Â usually-tragic Julianne Moore and ridiculously pretty Nicholas â€œAbout A Boyâ€Â Hoult, now all grown up and ready for anything.
CareyÂ Mulligan and Colin Firth both deliver performances well worth the price ofÂ admission. Newcomer Mulligan is a total revelation â€“ wise and smug and uncanny.Â Staying strictly in period, Mulligan manages to comment on that period. TheÂ filmâ€™s feminist messages are many and gratifyingly subtle, encoded with aÂ winsome smile or the lift of an eyebrow. Restraint rules. Peter Sarsgaardâ€™sÂ David didnâ€™t fool me for a moment; perhaps itâ€™s something in the actorâ€™s faceÂ that just telegraphs his essential untrustworthiness. Likewise, his cohortÂ Dominic Cooper (Danny) is another actor whose smarminess oozes in every role. IÂ like to think that even at the tender age of sixteen, my creep meter was moreÂ attuned than the hapless and innocent Jennyâ€™s. The supporting cast, well chosenÂ and duly pedigreed, include overbearing father Alfred Molina, dowdy-fiedÂ teacher Olivia Williams, horrible headmistress Emma Thompson, and cautionaryÂ tale in high heels Rosamund Pike.Â The period details are well observed; this England is stillÂ mired a bit in the post-war gloom. The swinging sixties are still up ahead; oneÂ senses Miss Mulliganâ€™s rebel-with-a-cause Jenny and her peers will bust throughÂ that barrier once they get away from home. Suburban and stifled and desperate, Â her parents imbue her with all their hopes, dreams and ambitions.
The canyons and beaches of Los Angeles are a world away fromÂ England but hopes, dreams, and ambitions there are just as dashed.Â Well-meaning, toxic, suburban families encroach on privacy and drive the loveÂ that dare not speak its name underground.
Firth has been working in films for a long time but seldomÂ to greater effect than here; heâ€™s usually cast as the worthy beau, solid andÂ good and mostly a bit generic. George holds the screen for most of the filmâ€™sÂ running time; every possible human emotion plays across Firthâ€™s face and goesÂ mostly unverbalized. Without a word of dialogue or saying the opposite of whatÂ he means, Firth expresses everything we need to know about the search forÂ meaning and life itself. Itâ€™s a tall order well met.
The costuming is unsurprisingly impeccable, perhaps tooÂ impeccable. The same goes for the hairstyling. Everyone in the cast, evenÂ extras, are outfitted like runway modelsÂ Â in perfectly period apparel with flawless flips, French twists, andÂ beehives. The interiors are likewise tasteful beyond reproach; Georgeâ€™s homeÂ would make a timeless and lovely spread in any issue of Architectural Digest.Â Had Tom Ford concentrated solely on the look of the film, this could beÂ criticism, but the beauty only enhances the message, the elegiac quality of theÂ material. All that beauty is ultimately the point; Georgeâ€™s gradual reawakenedÂ appreciation of life, love, and all that beauty saves him from the brink.
I love this problem. I loved both films. They both tackle issues I care deeplyÂ about and steer blessedly clear of didacticism and polemics. Theyâ€™re bothÂ remarkably well written and directed and acted, and they both take place in aÂ period I remember with great clarity and relative fondness. They both succeedÂ on their own terms. I can heartily recommend them both. Iâ€™m picking a winnerÂ though because that is my mission. â€œA Single Man.â€ I devoutly wish that all those attending andÂ testifying at the Prop 8 hearings would take a couple of hours to watch andÂ learn.