Review: “A Single Man”

A highly impressive filmmaking debut by former Gucci designer Tom Ford, the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel is a lusciously realised, occasionally kitschy but emotionally honest period drama that superbly captures the spirit of the original tome. Though one or two unfortunate choices show off Ford’s unfamiliarity with a director’s chair, for a first time feature it’s a remarkably assured and multi-dimensional work that shows the talented designer could very well succeed on the silver screen.

Commercial success for ‘Single’ however may be elusive. The story of gay middle-aged British professor George Falconer living in 1960’s Los Angeles and grieving over the loss of the love of his life is pure art house cinema. Ford never shies away from George’s sexuality, from his staring at sweaty shirtless young men playing tennis to his obvious attraction but level-headed approach to an amorous young student (Nicholas Hoult) struggling to find his sexual identity.

Yet, aside from one thinly veiled but well-argued school lecture sequence, the issue is neither made into a political issue or even a crucial plot point. It’s universal enough that were the gay male speaking parts changed into women and Julianne Moore’s character to become a gay man, you really wouldn’t need to change a word of the script.

What makes it though is Ford’s obvious empathy and skilled conveyance of the many emotions at play. The raw grief of loss, the comfort of daily routine, the nostalgic joy of moments that might seem everyday trivial to others, the regret of things left unsaid, even the sheer mundane silliness of planned suicide. There’s an innate understanding that depression is not wallowing in sorrow but a numbing, permeating greyness of apathy that can be momentarily broken through by moments of unexpected sensual delight. Sadly a rather amateur decision to bleed color saturation back into the film at those moments is a garish touch that is the most visible detraction from the overall film. A more subtle and less infrequent use of this effect would’ve yielded a much stronger impact.

Having being relegated to parading himself as a classier Hugh Grant in various Hollywood and British rom-coms, it’s a welcome surprise to see Colin Firth finally get to sink his teeth into some weighty dramatic material again. The refined and highly controlled British exterior is what we come to expect from Firth and he keeps it up for much of the film. This however makes the times when the marble facade cracks and we glimpse a dark tide of raw despair wash over him have that much more impact. A flashback scene showing the phone call where George is told of his lover’s death demonstrates this well as it spends at least five minutes in an unbroken close-up shot of the actor as his body is wracked by all sorts of conflicting emotions.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Moore as a ditzy, drunken divorcee and old friend superbly captures the pitiable future of those who can’t let go of a doomed infatuation. A dinner of fun and remembrance between these old friends precedes one of the film’s best and most honest sequences in which she makes a failed pass at George and an argument ensues in which true feelings come out. It’s a raw and painfully truthful scene that both have a firm understanding of and relish playing to the hilt.

British skinny boys Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult are treated with visual and narrative revenance by Ford. Spray tanned, plush lipped and perfectly coifed, both are cinematically handled with all the care of a Michelangelo masterpiece. We always remember the dearly departed in a far more saintly light than they probably deserve, thus Goode as the lost love is only ever seen as the perfect man – relaxed, old school handsome, self-deprecating, utterly charming, and completely in love with George.

While there’s a little over indulgence in the nudity his scenes, “Skins” star Hoult as the life-loving young student delivers a gravitas and depth beyond his years to a role that could easily have been played too cliched, though is essential to George’s eventual self-actualisation. Jon Kortajarena also impresses as a Spanish hustler who has a frank conversation about life with George in a car park.

Events are restricted to that on a single day which makes things play out like a series of dramatic sketches with little interconnection. At times the lack of restraint gets the better of Ford – a darkly comic subplot about the neighbouring family is repeated a little too often, as is a shot of a naked George floating in a night time sea. Several great slow motion scenes of sensory emotion, such as George sniffing a stranger’s dog, drag on enough to change from being delightful to slightly creepy.

The production design touches and costuming is utterly exquisite and vivid, making everything look like an old magazine ad from the period. From the stunning architecture of George’s home, to the various perfect dresses and pressed suits, even the little touches such as Moore’s pink cigarettes or the wall ads for “Psycho” all add to the period mystique. Score is solid with lots of string instruments which make it evoke films of that era, though it does at times feel mismatched with onscreen events.

The finishing touches and aesthetics ring a little too immaculate and ostentatious to be authentic, but emotionally at its core you’d be struggling to find a film more subtle and mature this year. It’s a beautiful film that definitely isn’t for everyone, the self indulgence of visual tropes will turn off some while others will find its poignancy rather cold. To me though it nails its subject matter perfectly and for a directorial debut is an astonishing and elegant bit of craft.