A Single Man, 2009.
Directed by Tom Ford.
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult and Matthew Goode.
After the death of his long-time companion, a middle-aged college professor decides to kill himself and goes about getting his affairs in order in what would otherwise be a normal day.
I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.
Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.
There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.
Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.
So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.