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