A Single Man (2009) dir. Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult
By Alan Bacchus
Primo fashion designer Tom Ford makes an auspicious transition into filmmaking with one of the best films of last year - a truly mesmerizing, intense and passionate introspective look at love, loss and the barriers to grief for a gay man in the 1960’s. And second go around on DVD, the film holds up admirably.
As the former creative director of Gucci, we all know Tom Ford has style, and indeed the wardrobe is impeccable and precise without being overwhelming. In fact the visual design of the entire film seems to trickle down from George Falconer’s suits and black-rimmed glasses into every corner of Ford’s stunning frames. In fact, it’s the most visually-pleasing film of the year, remarkable considering it’s not in 3-D and there is certainly no blue Na’vi.
Ford’s film is based on the novel of the same name written in 1964 by Christopher Isherwood. And so Ford has the both the benefit of the first person thoughts of a gay man written at the time the story is set, as well as 45+ years of historical context post 1964.
Colin Firth plays George Falconer, an English professor in LA who at the beginning of a November day in 1962, gets a phone call that his partner and lover of 16 years has died in a car accident. The phone call is rendered even more heartbreaking when the family member on the other end of the phone informs him that he can’t go to the funeral, that it's for ‘family’ only.
As typical for many gay men at the time, he has a dual and closeted lifestyle with his true emotions directed inward. Thus, his inability to grieve with true emotion catharsis. George tells himself he just had to get through this day. By carrying around a revolver in his bag suicide would seem to be the end of the path. But when a spry young student takes an interest in him, a ray of light shines downon George offering a glimmer of hope.
‘Revolutionary Road’ makes a good comparison film – the tepid suburban tragedy based on Richard Yates’s acclaimed 1961 novel. But ‘A Single Man’ seems to have gotten everything right that ‘Road’ got wrong. While Road’s examination of suburban fears in post-war America felt out of date and played out, ‘A Single Man’ reflects poignantly on this fearful period in time with historical reflection.
Ford also piggybacks on other films with homosexual themes. Casting Colin Firth seems a concerted attempted to continue a foundation of closeted gay character both actors have established in other films, namely Firth’s in the closet characters from ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Where the Truth Lies’. Same with the casting of Julianne Moore, who brings the scent Todd Haynes’ Sirkian melodrama ‘Far From Heaven’ to her role as George’s faghag.
Ford keeps the narrative simple and clear of salacious plotting, instead coasting elegantly on his searing tone of mystery and melancholy. The presence of George’s keeps the threat of death, or suicide in our minds. And even George’s interactions of other potential lovers, with the context of homosexuality in the 60’s brings another level of fear and intrigue. We can also enjoy the film purely on the level of Ford’s classically composed frames, each of which are museum-worthy photographs. Horizontal lines are consistently and carefully placed in the foreground and background to directs our eyes to Ford’s main character, his single man.
Looking back again at the picture, it's a shame the weakest aspect is it's final moments. George's fate at the very end seems arbitrary, a tacked on denouement which doesn't enlighten anything new about his character or his journey. Still, it's only a mild distaste which goes away quickly, leaving us with the elegant imagery and sound to linger in our memory.