A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult
Goes well with: A Serious Man, Longtime Companion, Brokeback Mountain
Culturally, this year has been all about the '60s. Sure, it's easy to say that Mad Men sparked it two years ago, but while we've aped that decade for years, 2009 marks a moment when it became high culture within our own culture. The Coen brothers set their autobiographical film A Serious Man in the '60s. There was a terrific reissue of the documentary Woodstock, and Ang Lee made the far inferior Taking Woodstock, as well. Richard Curtis made Pirate Radio, another '60s flick.
All of these renderings of the decade are about things with which we're familiar—rock 'n' roll, hippies, smoking and a society abounding with transition and culture gaps. But Tom Ford's elegant new film, A Single Man, is about a segment of that decade rarely discussed: Fear.
Is Ford's name familiar? If so, it might be because he's a ridiculously famous fashion designer, the guy who got women wearing Gucci again. There was skepticism when he announced he'd be crossing disciplines and adapting Christopher Isherwood's novel for the screen, but he's an artist and a designer, and those qualities are gorgeously evident in the film. The production design is dazzling. The framing and the cinematography are lovely. The accompanying score is beautiful. And Ford has two other advantages. The first is that he's a first-time director with means, so he has the funding to see his vision through. The second is that he hired British actor Colin Firth to play the lead. Ladies who love Firth in his various Mr. Darcy roles may be disappointed to learn that Firth's character in A Single Man bats for the other team, but the depth and nuance of his performance, one of the year's best, will probably make them change their tune.
The entire thing takes place over the course of one day in Los Angeles in 1962. Firth is George Falconer, a literature professor at an area university who lives alone in a gorgeously designed home. He's miserable there. He's lonely not because he can't find someone to share his life with—he found that someone, but, just recently Jim (Matthew Goode) was killed in an auto accident. As he says in the film's early moments, it takes a lot just to get out of bed in the morning, transform himself into George and make it through the goddamned day.
Let's remember, this is more than 40 years ago. There was no talk of boyfriends, lovers, partners or longtime companions. His colleagues are gripped by the media fear-mongering of the day (the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis), and his students, much like today's students, are relatively disengaged. He feels absolutely alone in the world—aside from his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a Brit who's never gotten past the idea that she and George would be perfect together—and every day since Jim died has been an unbearable struggle from beginning to end.
But this day, the day on which the film takes place, is the day he decides it will all change. George has plans, and the only person who might convince him to change them is Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a student who's trying to find his own way and who's hoping Mr. Falconer might be his mentor, or perhaps his lover, or something else entirely.
Although there are parts of the film that move far too slowly, and the ending, frankly, disappointed me, Firth's performance more than makes up for it. Essentially, he turns what could have so easily become little more than an exercise in style and art direction into a very human, very moving film.
And it's not because his character is suffering—it's because he still manages to get through the day, despite his suffering, despite the intolerance and despite the fact that he has to bottle up his grief. The world around George doesn't know what's going on inside of him, but Firth makes sure the audience does.
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