Here are two Colin Firth movies that rhyme nicely: “A Summer in Genoa” (AKA “Genova”) and “A Single Man.” In both movies he does us the enormous service of showing what a 21th century mensch is like. He doesn’t do it alone, of course. Michael Winterbottom directed and Laurence Coriat wrote “A Summer in Genoa.” Tom Ford reworked and directed Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man.” Both Firth heroes have just been bereaved of their beloved companions, both are teachers, both are upscale, both are entirely reliable. Well, perhaps the Winterbottom character is slightly more reliable since he has two daughters. (One, Kelly, is a teenaged gazelle who in my opinion should eat more pasta but in the opinion of the local young Italian stallions is just right. The other, Mary, is in that eight/nine-year-old time of growing identity when one is vulnerable and not quite in control.) The Ford character in “A Single Man” drinks too much and is planning his own demise. Everyone is flirting with death. Aren’t we all? All the time?
In these small intense films Firth is able to show intimacy without a sexual act. When his distraught daughter wakes in nightmare, he holds her tight, surrounding her physically but with no hint of anything salacious. With his older daughter he is physically very careful. He is aware that his older daughter is exploring sex, but manages (barely) to stay out of it. It’s not that he’s not attractive (female colleagues, students, friends rush to help him), it’s that he accepts the full weight of responsibility. As the character in “A Single Man,” he enjoys the hustler and the student who approach him, but as full human beings, not just encounters. He loves his woman friend, dances with her, kisses her lightly. But that’s it. In the present.
Lucky that Firth is a strong swimmer since both movies use scenes in the sea. In fact, “A Single Man” is haunted by his dreaming nude body twisting underwater. He manages to be competent but never exaggerated into a superman -- this is not father-as-.007. When in Genova he swims out to check on his nubile daughter who is sunning on a boat, it is an effort. The Genova film is dominated by the trope of the labyrinth because of the narrow medieval streets, so confusing and illogical, so sumptuous and sinister, so confining and yet traveled quickly if one follows them, chute-like. At one point the small crew and cast were mistaken for a family on holiday and a local woman came out to urgently warn them that the area was dangerous and they should leave immediately.
“A Single Man” was a little tricky to market except for the inclusion of the female character “Charlie” as a sort of beard to put on posters, but she is a full participant in the plot. With delight I recognized the sort of boy who is tenderly protective of adults. These types are new to film, I think.
“Summer in Genoa” never had a theatrical release, going straight to DVD. Both films are intense but demanding in terms of attention and reflection. They are made possible in part because of video filming with small steadicams tolerant of low light and able to go into very confined spaces. This in turn allows small intimate casts who bond on the set and creative crews who work together from film to film. The difference from conventional Hollywood sets and cameras is so great that it amounts to a different media, demanding both a different kind of story and a different kind of audience, much closer to the BBC repertory system that produced Colin Firth in the first place. His “breakout” role was “Mr. Darcy,” a model of intelligent restraint and private affections.
So is Mr. Darcy a 21st century mensch role-model? It bears thinking about. Colin Firth, whose acting is of the sort that works by being transparent to the underlying actor, is not unlike President Obama, though his sympathies seem farther to the left, more like Bono or Sting. He has funded the kind of brain research that interests me, like a study of conservatives versus liberals that tried to discover differences in which of the small structures of the brain dominates each: the amygdala for the conservatives and the anterior cingulate cortex for the liberals. (I don’t think that’s the end of the story since some liberals are as stuck and resistant to change as any conservatives and some conservatives are open to evidence that would change their assumptions.)
When I was a kid, gazing worshipfully at Audie Murphy in cowboy movies, I blurred the line between the man and the actor just as everyone was meant to do. He was, after all, a war hero. But we never knew much beyond what the studio wanted us to read in publicity. The stories were predictable and patriotic. Now here’s Colin Firth and we know everything and he is a world figure who speaks out about and acts out issues that are on the edge. But somehow he manages to convey the same earnest integrity that amounts to courage.
Mostly human beings guide their lives (and often their loves) by watching those around them either directly or through the media. When the media is dominated by selling and by sensational big-mouths, we are tipped in that direction. These two films about personal and domestic issues that preserve dignity and grace draw us quite different maps. Not easy ones, but coherent ones.
Though Tom Ford’s film, “A Single Man”, is about a professor, it is also luxurious in a highly aesthetic way: an architectural gem of a house, fine cars and guns, and so on. Yet he runs to the store around the corner like an ordinary guy. His relationship with his partner is about dogs and books, relaxing together with music. Maybe the message is that part of the secret of a moral life is good taste rather than flamboyance (like Charlie's life).
Winterbottom’s “A Summer in Genoa” is also about a professor but one who cooks and nurtures, who waits up for his teenaged daughter and respects the quite moving drawings of his younger daughter. He protects without invasion. So maybe this message is that part of the secret of a moral life is responsible and intimate family relationships. Colin Firth is an effective messenger.