A SINGLE MAN
99 minutes // USA // Artina Films
dir. Tom Ford
Saturday, December 12th, 2009 – Cumberland Four
starring: Colin Firth, Nicholas Hoult & Julianne Moore
A man wakes up one morning after a scattered dream where he kissed his lover goodbye and lay next to him in the shrill cold embrace of winter and of death. With eyes open, but hardly impressed or shocked by the dream, he looks over to where Jim used to sleep. There are only reminders of both he and his death – highlighted by the blot of black ink that lay in a puddle. He touches the darkness to his lips. George kisses death.
Budding with a sense of urgency, A Single Man relishes in our most dire losses. Be it of love, of comradery or of purpose, Tom Ford examines the trials that come with losing a friend, a lover and most importantly an existence you occupied with pride. It has been eight months since Jim felt victim to the slippery roads in winter that led to both his death and the death of one of the couples two dogs. George has slowly come to the conclusion that without a person that understands him in an intolerant world, there is no reason to pursue life. His job, although he loves literature, is drab and the reception he gets from society – based on the reactions found in the confinements at the college he teaches English at – range from hatred or disgust (from the men) to quizzical giggles over how a handsome man like George could turn away the assortment of women at his disposal and set his sights on men (from the women). As the seconds drip throughout the day (as portrayed as literal by the director with time slowing down excessively) a panache Ford imbues his atmosphere with the purest melancholy cinema has experienced in many a year and can attribute the majority of his success to the execution in this vein.
Heavy-handed symbolically, this is not a feature for those who do not take kindly to pageantry — fortunately, I do. As many know, Tom Ford is first and foremost a fashion photographer so he is accustomed to — and lavishes in — visual stimulants that sell a product or idea. He applies the same technique to this film, and whether you appreciate it or not, he avoids the humdrum expectations that precede “one person, one depression” in independent cinema.
A prime source of Ford’s wavering success is his use of cinematography to kindle George’s feeling of despondency and detachment from the world around him. When focused on George as he ruminates over his pending future – simply put, whether or not to shoot himself and be done with this misery – Ford applies a sepia palette to the frame. In doing so, he sucks the life out from the scene and immerses viewers into the wallowing of self-pity George has created for himself. Then there are moments when George sees a dog that resembles the ones he had lost, speaks to a delightful person or sees half-naked men being playful that invigorates his sexual nature. Ford contrasts these scenes visually with those of depression by adding a bit of enthusiasm to George’s perspective by giving him a slight, but noticeably more chipper persona and adding a radiance to colors around him. Generally life isn’t as readily interpreted as this, but when facing dire straits as George is, Ford’s almost too simple approach to life creates an affluence to his work and an understanding about the pathos of man in distress that grace silver screens as often as pink moons grace the sky.
If this is not enough to either entice or deter you from seeing A Single Man, there is a myriad of other symbolic concepts that pop and dissipate as frequently as one would imagine them. Take for example the idea that Jim took both of the dogs with him to go see his mother. One died (as Jim did) and one scampered away from the ordeal, lost. Or that now whenever a phone rings he is instantly reminded of Jim and rehashes the phone call from a cousin of Jim’s telling him that he is in fact dead, adding a slight insult to injury nearing the end of the call to apply even more desolation the lead character has experienced with this loss. References like these are indicative of how George relates himself to this tragedy and how undying his misery is and the way Ford handles this is expertly done.
As often expected in one’s film debut, there lay a few dry areas where a more seasoned director would’ve been more crisp with execution, that in turn highlight Ford’s novice. Throughout, Ford pervades the film with a series of classical compositions (primarily operatic) that swell those who can relate with George’s abjection with a concise sense that there is beauty in depression (and yes, there is beauty in depression) and that no matter how crestfallen and without catharsis, one can continue living knowing that with loss comes opportunity and a further profoundness and appreciation for life. This is easily interpreted, but Ford assumes, like he, the audience is new to this way of relating to art and in being assumptive, he reiterates these points. Not to a point of excess, but to a noticeable degree that will surely be discovered as cumbersome to some. Even with these amateur moments, Ford’s vision is hardly sundry or cause for annoyance in relation to the poignancy he otherwise exudes.
In addition to a marvel in both concept and execution, Ford finds fortune in possessing a cast filled to the brim with experience and an undying work ethic. Colin Firth gives (what deserves to be deemed) an undying portrayal of emotional complexity that teaches the psyche of solidarity as much as it does in helping society understand the inherent emotional setback that homosexuals find through ridicule. The performance is divine on several levels, encompasses honesty as if it were habitual, and is simply put, masterfully brilliant. Moreover, his supporting cast replenishes the film on other emotional fronts that partly dissipate the malady and keep the feature from running astray on the bleak front. Nicholas Hoult’s performance as the intrigued and relentless youth Kenny matures after its auspicious beginning as he finds his own way of conveying maturity while trying to reach to his forlorn teacher, George; Julianne Moore’s take on Charlotte, the hapless best friend to George who reaches for glitz and glamor in her pedestrian existence is good in its own right – however it’s fortunate that the character is given limited screen time, for if she were a constant a frustrating contrast would’ve formed between her and George, in turn deferring the core purpose of the tale; and Matthew Goode gives one of the most humble incarnations of humility as Jim and the way he conveys his characters appreciation of existence is reminiscent of James Franco’s turn in Milk last year, but a step more palpable and true. In fact, the scenes in which George and Jim quietly embrace each others company emanates the perfect feeling that Ford wants to convey to his audiences; giving essential insight as to why George’s devastation is far more affecting than the simple “it’s difficult to be gay in the 60s” reasoning one might assume upon walking into the feature.
Written with an pure earnestness about the depressive mind, Tom Ford and David Scearce have constructed one of the most intimate, tragic, symbolic and ironic scripts in recent memory. Whether it’s George being given a yellow pencil sharpener that reflects his apprehension (see: cowardice) in regards to ending his life or the authentic narration that is found only at the beginning and end of the day – done as many others would think about the day ahead and concluding by pondering the events of the day in a genuine manner – it is clear that Ford and Scearce, like meshing the minds of Einstein and Freud into one, have fortified genius.
A Single Man is a tearful homage to the sufferers of the world; a love letter never meant to be reciprocated, but understood by the isolated. This is Ford’s first step to what I hope will and should be a long-lasting career. His film is a masterpiece in most regards and quite easily the best film of the year.