January 14, 2010

A Single Man

Did we just slip into an Abercromie & Fitch ad?

Grade: B

Director: Tom Ford

Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, and Matthew Goode

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

The goal of a good fashioner designer –like a film director – is to stylize humanity without sacrificing its spirit.

As the decade-long creative director for Gucci, Tom Ford helped turn around an ailing brand and earned international acclaim. Now, Ford has turned his attention to Tinseltown by directing his first movie, A Single Man, based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. Set in 1962, it depicts one day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a 50ish, gay English college professor living in a Los Angeles glass-and-timber home, eight months after the sudden death of his longtime partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). George not only lives a closeted life but is unable to openly unburden himself of the pain caused by the death of his beloved. Finding no meaning in a life of emotional solitude, George prepares to commit suicide.

A Single Man benefits from maintaining a narrow focus on its troubled protagonist and expressing broader social commentary only by extension, although the lone notable exception is when George lectures his class on the persecution of minorities by way of manipulating society’s fear.

Ford’s background figures highly in his directing, as Single Man contains moments of filmmaking at its most exquisite. The camerawork, costumes, set designs, and brooding soundtrack are so sumptuous they essentially become their own characters. For a while, Ford employs his visual devices to conjure a meditative, melancholy portrait of an otherwise successful man weary of bearing the yoke of private torment and public repression.

At the same time, there is no moment of George’s everyday too mundane to merit its own slow-motion montage, or too inconsequential to warrant a plaintive string accompaniment. Some of the visual imagery quickly grows pretentious, including recurring underwater footage of a floating nude male body.

What rescues the film are its two headline performances. Foremost is Firth, who effectively underplays to convey George’s crippling inner anguish. Take, as one of many fine examples, when George learns of Jim’s death by telephone and informed he is not welcome at the “family-only” funeral. With camera in close-up, the range of emotions Firth conjures while barely cracking his visage is an acting masterclass.

The other is Julianne Moore’s brief but blazing turn as George’s longtime, gin-fueled gal pal, Charley, in many ways the film’s most complex character. George and Charley share both a deep friendship and fleeting past sexual relationship. But, while they rely on each other for moral and emotional support, each is a fractured soul. Charley remains torn between sympathy for George and her resentment that the one man she ever truly loved could not reciprocate, instead turning into a “fucking poof.”

Firth and Moore breathe life into Ford’s glossy canvas, elevating A Single Man from a superficial photo spread into a work of poignant elegance.

Neil Morris

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