Sony // 2009 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 6th, 2010
"Waking up begins with saying 'am' and 'now.'"
"For the past eight months, waking up has actually hurt."
It's Friday, November 30, 1962, and George Falconer (Colin Firth, Apartment Zero), a British man living in LA, has been alone since his long-time lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, Match Point) was killed in a car accident eight months earlier. Unlike many same-sex couples at the time, George and Jim enjoyed a fairly placid domestic life, living in a modern, window-heavy house (that Jim designed) in an upscale suburb.
The college professor is finding the pain of his grieving unbearable and decides that this will be the last day of his life.
He plans everything meticulously, from cleaning out his office and his safety deposit box, to setting his important papers in order and writing notes to his friends, to laying out the suit he'd like to be buried in and considering the best way to shoot himself without leaving too much of a mess for his housekeeper.
As he goes through his day, his thoughts flash back to his time with Jim, remembering their satisfying, if not extraordinary, life together. He finds himself looking more closely at people he encounters, both strangers and people he's known. He gets together with his closest friend, Charley (Julianne Moore, Chloe), a fellow displaced Brit and former lover who drinks too much, smokes too much, and seems determined to keep her own loneliness at bay.
George starts to notice things around him in a different light -- beauty, tenderness, and perhaps connections he thought he was no longer capable of making.
Fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man is an elegantly realized and deeply affecting rumination on death, life, loneliness, grief, and love.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood, the film is anchored by an outstanding turn by Colin Firth. The actor plays perfectly George's internalized grief -- grief that must remain internalized because society in 1962 wouldn't accept mourning the loss of a same-sex partner. Even if that weren't the case, George's restrained and appropriate demeanor wouldn't allow for extravagant displays of sorrow.
Firth is understated in the best possible way. His face, his posture, his inflections touch not only on what George is feeling, but the man's entire history. A scene with a friendly hustler becomes a slow-dance of tentative seduction, a last visit with Charley, a reverie. We see the acute vulnerability beneath the studied, fastidious exterior, the weariness of a man adding up his life and finding himself disappointed in the sum. This is a fully realized, achingly honest and intelligent performance, and Firth deserved every honor bestowed on him.
As Charley, Moore's portrait of an aging, adrift beauty is remarkable. Even with a limited amount of screen time, she creates a complex, wholly recognizable character, and her scene with Firth is a highlight of the film. Nichola Hoult (About a Boy) offers an assured and touching supporting turn as a student who takes an interest in George.
Like Julian Schnabel, Ford approaches his film with an artist's eye. This is a beautifully crafted film. The sets and, of course, the costumes are impeccable, and we learn so much about the characters -- particularly George and Charley -- through their surroundings and what they are wearing. Eduard Grau's cinematography is impressive, the shots are expertly composed. Ford creates mood by constantly altering the visual palette -- somber, muted tones here, great bursts of color there, and a gorgeous black and white sequence of George and Jim that looks like a classic print spread. The story, as we come to understand it, is not so much a march toward death but a journey to the light, and Ford's visual stylization renders this successfully, if not always subtly.
The disc offers excellent picture and audio and a very good pair of extras. A commentary from Ford -- conveniently subtitled -- offers lots of insights into the director's vision, as does the "Making of," which includes input from the cast.
Like an overworked piece of couture, Ford's directorial touches sometimes feel heavy-handed, intruding on the intimacy of the subject matter. We get extreme close-ups of eyes, shoes, hands, and all sorts of props; shots of George submerged in water that are so obviously symbolic as to border on insulting; off-putting "quick cuts" (what used to be known as "MTV style"); a sequence that seems so slavishly devoted to replicating a Calvin Klein ad that Firth has to work double time to make it resonate; an out-of-place tip of the hat to The Wizard of Oz; and a couple too many fantasy sequences, including one involving a neighborhood child that's supposed to be funny but is ultimately offensive and presents the protagonist in a decidedly unflattering light.
This might not be such a problem if Ford had more of a story to tell, but frankly, A Single Man's thin plot often caves in under the weight of all the stylistic touches.
While it's undeniably beautiful to look at, the film is, at times, impenetrable, too internalized. Ford's feature-length commentary helps put things in their proper light, but frankly, it's a little too "essential" to completely appreciating the film. Ford often seems to be going for pretty pictures in place of action or interaction to tell his story; while this works on one level, on another, there's a feeling that this might have been better suited as a portfolio than a film. Were a less-talented actor than Firth heading this up, I doubt that the film would have had nearly the emotional heft that it does.
Tom Ford's first film is visually striking, if a bit overdone, and features exemplary work from the cast, including an extraordinary performance from Colin Firth. While the film might be overall a bit slow and obscure, it's still recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R