Grieving in a color-coordinated world
by Molly Templeton
A SINGLE MAN: Directed by Tom Ford. Written by Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood. Cinematography, Eduard Grau. Editor, Joan Sobel. Music, Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi. Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult. The Weinstein Company, 2009. R. 99 minutes.
One of the first images in A Single Man is that of a man in a perfectly tailored suit. It’s a reminder that Man is the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, whose gorgeous film displays an eye for classic style that is simply too beautiful to ever be understated. Everyone, and everything, in this film is impeccable. With its early 1960s setting, it is Mad Men multiplied, and sometimes its creator is a little too in love with his creation; Ford occasionally forces characters and the audience to stare too long when a glimpse would do. But at other times, the discomfort that results is at effective odds with the simplicity of the story, which follows 50-something professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) through a single day as he struggles to come to terms with his existence following the recent death of his longtime partner.
After Jim (Matthew Goode)’s death, George finds it difficult being the person the world requires him to be. Alone, he exists within frames leached of brightness; they’re faded, worn, anything but vibrant. But when he’s talking with an intense student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from About a Boy), or his longtime friend Charley (Julianne Moore), or even a neighbor he barely knows, color blooms into the picture, lingering as the day goes on. Life isn’t empty without Jim; life is only empty when George is alone.
Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel — described by Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement” — both compacts and stretches the book’s story. It is fully centered in George’s existence, but it’s also more welcoming of the other characters. Ford is kinder to needy, dramatic Charley than Isherwood was, and he emphasizes George’s odd funny streak. But most impressively, he packs brief scenes with meaning and history to remarkable effect. In the most striking of these, a neighbor girl appears in front of George at the bank. His gaze travels from her feet, up her skinny knees, over her childish dress and to her sweet, sly face. We’re already in uncomfortable territory, but this is exactly how the world is going to see this girl as she grows. She shows George the jar containing her pet scorpion, which she and her brother like to watch kill things. Her father, she confides, would like to throw George in the jar with the scorpion.
Her naïvete makes the statement all the more shocking: This little blonde creature is giving us the now in which George lives, quietly and carefully mourning in a way he can express to almost no one, and the future in which she, we hope, will grow up to not judge how George lives, nor who he loves. And George, as Ford explains in his director’s statement, can’t see his future. He only exists now, and now is not enough without Jim.
When A Single Man ends, it does so abruptly. But it seems the only way the film could end without being too sweet, too harsh, too sentimental or too planned. Some see Ford’s lonely, uncompromising film as overly arranged, too tidy, too art-directed, but Firth refracts the artful world around him, transforming the cinematic unrealilty into a reflection of the restrained feelings George almost never displays. For every carefully arranged cufflink, there is a moment when Firth’s face shifts almost too slightly to catch; for every arty shot of Charley doing her eyeliner, there is a scene in which George’s stillness seems impossible, as if he’s actually unable to move. The balance isn’t quite perfect, but the effect is exceptional.
A Single Man opens Friday, Feb. 5, at the Bijou.