A Single Man (2009)
Tom Ford is a rare human being. He seems to be good at everything. The prominent fashion designer has never been averse to risk. He left work in America to toil for Gucci, a faltering European luxury brand. He became the creative director from 1994-2004, eventually leaving to form his own company. And after decades of success in the world of fashion, Ford decided to make the jump into movies. From fashion mogul to film director, nobody else has done it, let alone done it with such acclaim right out of the gate. A Single Man has been met with rich praise and Ford has been touted as a natural filmmaker. Perhaps Ford’s odyssey into moving pictures will inspire others to drop their needle and thread and pick up a camera instead. Who wants to see a Project Runway/Project Greenlight crossover?
In the early 1960s, George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a 50-year-old English professor still recovering from the loss of his love. Jim (Matthew Goode) and George had been together for over 16 years, that is, until Jim died in a car accident one rainy night. George has never fully recovered since that awful night. He doesn’t intend to waste any more time waiting for a reunion; at the end of the day, he will kill himself. He lays out his suit, empties his safety deposit box, and writes letters to his remaining friends and family. This will be George Falconer’s last day in Los Angeles, but perhaps in the meantime he’ll discover more reasons to give life another chance.
Ford comes from the world of high fashion and here he proves that he should be taken seriously as a filmmaker. He has a sumptuous eye for visuals. A Single Man looks great in every scene. The costumes and period details are impeccable and may even give the historical consultants from Mad Men some due pause. The cinematography by Eduard Grau can become irritating because the colors go from drab to vibrant, reflecting the main character’s changing moods (lifted spirits = brighter colors!). At first it’s a neat visual gimmick but as it persists it becomes a crude blinking light, inelegantly summing up what the movie feels it cannot communicate. At times it just feels like piling on. I don’t need the color to drain from the screen to understand that George is sad.
Ford’s adaptation skills, on the other hand, could use some more polish. He and David Scearce spent years adapting the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. They even added the whole suicide angle, which becomes their narrative crutch. There is a refreshingly funny sequence where George tries to act out his suicide position and goes from the shower to his bed, finally deciding upon shooting himself inside a zipped sleeping bag to cover the ensuing mess. This little five-minute stretch is like an oasis of humor in the super serious desert that is the rest of the film. The second half of the film is dominated by a will-he-or-won’t-he flirtation with a good-looking lithe college student (Nicholas Hoult, the boy all grown up from About a Boy). The kid shows definite interest. The romantic angle syncs up with George’s lost love and proves to be a welcomed distraction to George’s dejection. However, their connection is extremely thin, with Hoult making flirty eyes and inquisitively tilting his head for an hour. The romantic story exists as a means of making sure the narrative can mend George’s broken heart.
The story meanders for too long with a few revealing flashbacks, but honestly how hard is it to wring pathos from a suicidal man? How hard is it to write a middle-aged man taking stock of his life, getting his affairs in order, and saying his fuzzy goodbyes to people who don?t realize the significance. Everything gains magnitude under that prism; every pause, every inhalation, every wistful glance becomes riddled with deeper subtextual meaning, or so we are lead to believe. Every moment can unlock a new memory or secret, like when he sniffs a stranger’s dog and recalls his former beloved pet he shared with Jim. Under this guide, it is hard to tell whether the movie is doing any actual dramatic lifting. So much is supposed to be interpreted in the blankness, which the audience is entrusted to craft meaning to the character’s nostalgic pit stops. “Oh, he must be taking in the scent of the ocean one last time,” or, “Oh, he must be thinking about… something. But he’s gotta definitely be thinking about something. Something deep.” Can you see how this might get tedious after a while?
A Single Man could have afforded more peaks into George’s background and less of Julianne Moore. She plays an old boozy Brit friend of his from back in the day. Her moments onscreen, while limited, are a chore to get through because Moore just consumes her characters sadness. She gets drunk on the one emotion she’s been hired to play. She’s certainly not embarrassing herself like in 2006’s Freedomland, but this isn’t a performance for her illustrious highlight reel. I don’t care if she does get nominated for a supporting actress Oscar, as seems all but certain; I expect more from Moore.
Firth is the whole movie so it’s a relief that he turns in the performance of his career. He gives a complex portrayal that doesn’t nicely fit into the typical Firth cinematic creature: priggish, clever, dry, ultimately a good guy. Here you can practically see the gears in his head processing the last moments of life. The extent he can convey with his eyes or simply the corners of his mouth are exquisite. He provides so much of what the narrative does not. He’s a sad creature mired in one long day of existential grief, but I need more from this character than what Ford affords.
George Falconer gives a dandy speech about the fear of the minority, almost outing himself to his college class, but for a flick about an older gay male passing through life to be an invisible member of society, Ford adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to narrative. He buttons up his characters emotions. Understatement is lovely when there’s enough to work with. That’s the issue with A Single Man. Ford hasn’t given himself enough to work with, instead forcing the audience to make up the work by inserting meaning into every furtive brow and pained expression. This is a meditation on a life in passing, told through a series of small vignettes. I need more than a melancholy man listening to the clock strike seconds off his soon-to-be-ended life. If I wanted to watch that movie I’d check out the latest Gus van Sant art house masturbations.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Posted on December 26, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged book, colin firth, doomed romance, drama, gay, indie, julianne moore, matthew goode, nicholas hoult, oscars, period film, tom ford. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.