By Don Simpson | January 15, 2010
Director: Tom Ford
Writer(s): Christopher Isherwood(Book), Tom Ford, David Scearce (screenplay)
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult
George (Colin Firth) may be emotionally repressed (though he certainly is not brash, outrageous or free) but he is remarkably dressed (thanks to Tom Ford Menswear, according to the credits). A college professor of English living in a swank Los Angeles bachelor pad, George is by all accounts a single man – a middle-aged British one at that. George’s lover Jim (Matthew Goode) died eight months ago in an automobile accident while visiting family in Colorado. In one of countless flashbacks, George receives a courtesy call from his lover’s cousin (voiced by Jon Hamm of Mad Men) informing him of Jim’s death – it is readily apparent that George is not welcome to fly to Colorado to attend the funeral service. The present takes place on November 30, 1962, but it could very well be post-Proposition 8 California as well. George has no rights concerning his deceased life-partner – no matter how long (16 years) and unequivocally they loved each other.
Attempting to maintain his sanity for just one last day, George’s vacant eyes are clues enough that he is already dead inside. Everyone around him notes that he does not look well, yet no one except his lifelong friend and sole confident Charley (Julianne Moore) knows the cause. All of the comments about his health seem to ricochet right off him, as he has other things weighing heavily on his mind – he is planning his suicide. George has been dying by daily installments (to paraphrase Aldous Huxley) and is committed to not remaining on earth one more day. Unlike his lover’s untimely death for which no one was prepared, George wants to ensure that his funeral and estate will be properly handled by neatly laying all of the relevant paperwork and preferred casket attire out in plain view on his desk.
While lecturing his class on Aldous Huxley’s (who died less than one year later – on November 22, 1963) After Many a Summer, George gives a thoughtful tangential monologue on the politics of fear (he also discusses the theory of invisible people – without revealing his own cloak of invisibility). All day long he has been hearing a barrage of news reports about the Cuban missile crisis (in reality the Cuban missile crisis occurred a month earlier), and during this lecture he focuses on the media and government’s proliferation of fear in order to sway public opinion. Communists are invading America! Nuclear war is imminent! It is all a means to an end: war. Sound familiar? Well, as the saying goes, history is destined to repeat itself.
George’s lecture lulls most of his class to sleep – the stunningly fair-haired and fair-skinned Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) remains enamored. Styled in an elegant white mohair sweater, Kenny (and the Bardot-esque young woman seated beside him) appears to have just wandered onscreen from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point or a men’s fashion show – and the youthful perfection of the angelic student is nearly impossible for George to resist. Kenny’s angelic appearance is a heavy-handed metaphor (a storytelling technique that we learn from the very first images of the film – George’s writhing naked body immersed hopelessly underwater – Ford is not afraid to use). If anyone in this story possesses the power to save George from death, it will most likely be Kenny.
Based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, the most prominent message in A Single Man is that since gays are not recognized by society they are forced to be invisible (similar to the African-American narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). Of course George is not quite as invisible as he thinks – it is obvious to George’s neighbors that a good looking middle-aged man with a keen eye for men’s fashion, living alone in a perfect home with impeccably modern decor must be light in his loafers. Nonetheless, in everyone’s best interest, George is forced to keep up the charade. Each morning, George creates an enigma of himself; one that has no sexual preference and is invisible to the outside world.
Austin-born fashion designer-cum-film director, Tom Ford (Gucci’s infamous creative director from 1994 thru 2004) cleverly uses color saturation to express George’s feelings. For the most part, the color range is as dull and drab as George himself. Even the sun-drenched coast of Southern California is totally zapped of its bright and cheery hues – Ford’s California more closely resembles a dying northern industrial town in England – that is until certain events or people trigger a glimmer of happiness within George, then brilliant technicolors suddenly saturate the screen. It is not long before that fleeting happiness is once again wiped from George’s brain, as the color scope becomes unsaturated once again. (It is not without purpose and cause that Tom Ford references the visual mastery of Wong Kar-wai, Todd Haynes, Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni.)
In addition to Ford’s effective use of the cinematic color palate, the non-linear editing and off-speed pacing of A Single Man – though disorienting – brilliantly conveys George’s dizzying sense of dislocation. Certain shots are statically framed to resemble vintage Hollywood postcards: the iconic shot of the James Dean-esque Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) posed perfectly in a phone booth; the Psycho mural of which George parks his car precisely between Janet Leigh’s fear-filled eyes.
When all is said and done, it is Firth’s stunning yet controlled portrayal of George that truly stands out as one of the best acting performances of the 2009 awards season (alongside Jeff Bridges and Sam Rockwell). Several critics have faulted Ford for his intricately manicured mise-en-scène (personally, I find it odd for a director to be criticized for having such a precise and stylized eye), but opinions concerning Firth’s performance are consistently aggrandizing.
The most unfortunate aspect of A Single Man is the decision to interject some humor into George’s suicide attempts (at the Alamo Drafthouse, A Single Man is preceded by a trailer for Burt Reynolds’ 1978 suicide comedy The End). The shower scene and sleeping bag scene are a little too ridiculous for this film. Maybe I’ve known one too many people who have taken their own life with a pistol, but I think these two scenes are a bit tasteless.
The only other flaw in this stunning and delectable debut by Ford is Charley. Julianne Moore’s performance is overstated to the point of being hideously grotesque; the camera lens is no less kind to Moore – Charley is supposed to be an aged mod, but Ford turns her into a monstrous clown with an unfathomable mane of hair and make-up that appears to have been spackled or shoveled on. While on the subject of Moore, it is worth mentioning that A Single Man bares a resemblance (in tone, style and content) to Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (not a bad film to emulate – one of the best films of last decade in my book and certainly one of the best films in the history of queer cinema) – in which Moore (whose astonishing performance was shamefully denied the Oscar for Best Actress) also portrayed a woman in a relationship with an invisible gay man (played by Dennis Quaid).