Friday, April 20, 2012

A Single Man (2009)

Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult

Rare is it that one sees a film with the director’s fingerprints so clearly visible than those of Tom Ford’s in his debut film, A Single Man.  Ford, a famous fashion designer, definitely leaves a stylish imprint on his venture into a new medium.  His flourishes are a bit obvious but that is not meant to be overly critical; the moments where A Single Man resembles a perfume ad from the pages of Vogue manage to find a way to work.  With lesser material and lesser performances, that may have not been the case.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British homosexual man living in Los Angeles and grieving the loss of his longtime partner, Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashbacks, who is probably best known as Ozymandias in Watchmen).  However, this is not just a regular day in George’s life but rather the day in which George intends to kill himself.   This development adds weight to every observation, every conversation, every fantasy, and every memory that George experiences.

Colin Firth is powerfully restrained as a man who is trying to cope with a traumatic loss.  Life in the early 1960’s dictated that men (and women) who loved human beings of the same sex were not to be accepted.  George’s rich and loving relationship with Jim had to be kept hidden from most of the world for 16 years, and only adding to the tragedy of Jim’s death, so must his grief.  George hides his identity, and his grief, behind the perfect presentation of a “normal” man: white shirt, black tie, dark suit, polished shoes, and perfectly combed hair.  From the first scene on, we know that this perfect presentation is just a front for a distraught human being, highlighted by the pain seen in Firth’s face and heard in his narration.  Even those who know the real George and Jim cannot understand how real their love was.  His best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), is divorced, lonely, and longing to have had a “real relationship” with George, the worst kind of insult to what George and Jim had.  The flashbacks that show George and Jim before the accident show that their relationship was about as "real" as can be.

Jim’s family is even worse, not even inviting George to the “family only” funeral.  Watching George hear that news and the news of Jim’s car accident in the same phone call from Jim’s cousin (Mad Man’s Jon Hamm in a voice-only cameo) was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory.  In the eight months since that phone call, every single day has become a struggle.  A struggle that makes suicide inviting until the final decision actually comes and the little things that make life worth living become more apparent.  A Single Man is about George struggling to balance the urge to end his pain and the promise that life always presents during that one day.

Tom Ford’s stylized flourishes that I mentioned earlier are effectively used to amplify that pain and promise dichotomy.  When George’s pain is palpable, he seems to move through life in a haze.  He appears utterly alone, such as in the great shot of him walking against a crowd of people or floating naked underwater.  Life passes him by in slow motion and his thoughts are drowned out by the mundane sounds of ticking clocks and ringing phones.  Reminders of his past life surround him that only adds to his pain.  The director’s touches demonstrate that George has lost his grasp on the world in front of him.  Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, and impending nuclear annihilation, is only a peripheral issue left in the background.  Whatever has given George’s life meaning and joy has been taken.

Color acts as the greatest trick up Ford’s directorial sleeve.  We meet George when his depression has reached its tipping point and the palette of A Single Man is noticeably dull.  Life’s vibrancy has been sucked from George’s life, as have the vibrant colors been sucked from the film.  However, in the day that George plans to fade his life to black, he begins to take notice of the beauty in world around him again.  When he sees an athletic man playing tennis, pets a Smooth Fox Terrier, or has an innocent conversation with a young girl from his neighborhood, Ford floods the screen with brilliant and saturated color.  These bursts of color come and go as George contemplates his suicide, but become more sustained during the more meaningful conversations he has.

The most meaningful of the “colorful” conversations occur between George and one of his most interesting students, Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult who is unrecognizable from his breakout role as the little kid in About a Boy (he is probably more recognized as Beast in last summer’s X-Men: First Class).  Kenny is intrigued by his professor, and quietly sizes him up with talk of experimentation with drugs and complimenting the day’s lecture.  During the course of A Single Man, this intrigue eventually offers the promise of new friendship (whether it is of a sexual or plutonic nature is somewhat irrelevant) and new meaning in life.  It just takes the specter of life’s end to show the value of that promise for some.

At times, A Single Man has the feel of a poem put to film.  Tom Ford is clearly an artist and has chosen to show it off with all its bells and whistles.  Yet it avoids pretention and indulgence, which is quite a feat.  There is emotional substance to back up its style, and an excellent performance by Firth carrying each and every scene.  I appreciated the director’s ambition and admired the star’s performance. This is a really good film that got even better on a subsequent viewing (I think my re-watch even bumped it up one “mark”).

Mark it 7.

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