A Single Man

by | Jul 8th, 2010 | 11:59AM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

A Single Man is a thing of controlled, mannered precision. In fact, it’s so in love with its beautiful surfaces the film could slide effortlessly, painlessly off you if it wasn’t for Colin Firth’s Oscar-nominated performance at its center. But with Firth anchoring it, A Single Man ends up one of the best films of 2009.

In designer-turned-first-time-director Tom Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man, Colin Firth’s careful, aching work is so good, so nuanced, so magnified by restraint that not only does it make the film well worth watching, but it pulls the entire work together. As a result, A Single Man becomes something so much more than a retro fetishizing of both ‘60s style and pre-Stonewall homosexual marginalization—it’s a film that draws you in with beautiful melancholy but then—like the lovely, mournful cello music throughout–leaves you with a larger, richer warmth.

A Single Man follows George Falconer–a British-born California lit professor numbed by the death of his longtime companion–on what he intends to be the last day of his life. It’s been eight months since his partner Jim (Matthew Goode in flashbacks) died in a car accident and George rises and proceeds to plan his suicide with exactly the same meticulous, buttoned-down preparation and obsessive neatness as he dresses each morning. Not surprisingly, Ford the fashion designer loves as director to linger on the buttoning of a crisp, clean white shirt; the brushing of slick leather shoes; and yes, the arranging of farewell notes, keys, insurance policies and a loaded revolver on a desk top.

George’s old friend and ex-pat Brit Charley tries to tug him from his deepening fugue state, but as perfectly played by the great Julianne Moore, Charley is sinking ship herself, a boozy bit of wreckage still maintaining the illusion of life with smoky poise and a broad laugh. Both she and George paint on a pretty surface to feign daily survival, but while George knows it’s only a façade, Charley still believes the lies she tells herself between cigarettes and gin.

Also making his way into orbit around George is one of his students, a bright, charismatic young dreamer pushing his way toward the ‘60s counter-culture still a few years over the horizon. Nicholas Hoult, the middle-schooler in About a Boy, has grown into a broadly grinning, confident young man–drenched in the California sun, Hoult resembles more than a little a pre-Top Gun Tom Cruise.

And Matthew Goode (Leap Year, Watchmen) continues to position himself on the brink of a major Hollywood breakthrough—he’s somewhat handicapped in his portrayal of Jim in that we only see the character through George’s idealized memories, but Goode has that almost supernatural ability (shared with the Pitts and Clooneys of the film world) to make his easy, natural handsomeness come off as warm, strong and welcoming instead of pushy or overbearing.

Ford is here to celebrate artifice—A Single Man luxuriates in its moments, hovering in a swoon of nostalgia not just for the clothes and “modern” architecture of the Cuban Missile Crisis era (history is unfolding quietly in the background) but for the literary pretensions of the time. As in Todd Haye’s 2oo2 Far From Heaven (also starring Moore) and Sam Mendes Revolutionary Road last year, Douglas Sirk’s color-soaked melodrama is the guiding cinematic light in A Single Man. That makes for a film rich with stunning visuals and modern (as opposed to post-modern) dramatic idealization–but if unbalanced, it could have left you with the same feeling you get when you go to a hipster couple’s home and they’ve stocked their bar with perfect vintage and retro glass and decanter sets.

Firth keeps A Single Man from sliding into that sort of mimicry–without the actor’s talent, George’s stoic pain might have come off like a GQ photo shoot. But Firth plays out the glimpses of life and emotion left within—an touching scene with a stranger’s dog, as nuzzling the pet reminds George of his perfect life with Jim, is followed by George’s final suicide preparations, played for stiff-upper-lipped comedy as George’s compulsive neatness gets in the way of his mortal intentions.

George’s homosexuality is obviously a major focus in A Single Man —far from repressed in his sexuality, he’s still socially closeted in 1962. The point is driven home by his classroom lecture on Huxley that brings up the quote “They hated me without a cause” and mulls over how an invisible threat (such as Communism or homosexuality) can be used to fan fear, and then that fear used to manipulate. In counterbalance, Ford paints George’s life and love as a celebration of both the sensual and the deeply emotional.

But eventually that theme—like George’s own homosexuality—becomes part of a larger tapestry, a larger life. A Single Man is not just about a gay man coping with grief in the early ‘60s. It’s an ode to the often-futile quest for clarity—all that careful arranging and polishing of clothes and shoes to find meaning in order, while the true moments come at you sideways, unplanned, unexpected. Death weaves its dark way throughout A Single Man, but the film sublimely captures those rare glimpses of light when it all makes sense.

A Single Man is on DVD and available for rental from redbox.

15 Responses to “A Single Man

  1. Liz
    Posted on July 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I found the movie to be rather bland. Sure, the ending was ironic, but not like a twist. [SPOILER DELETED]

  2. Kathleen
    Posted on July 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Depressing,not entertaining at all, but a good ending to a bad movie…[SPOILER DELETED]

  3. Kirk
    Posted on July 10, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Not what I expected after seeing the previews. I like the filming style and the acting was ok. CF is a better Mr. Darcy.

  4. Robert
    Posted on July 12, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    For those of you that consider this movie depressing, & bland I believe you didn’t allow yourself to experience the true meaning of this movie. It was about a gay man dealing with the loss of his partner. The intention was to have the viewer slow down and feel the pain that George Falconer was living. Only until recently, & only in a few states, has someone that is gay been able to gain the ability to be involved with the memorial service, burial if he loses his partner. We still have many obstacles to overcome. Can you imagine what it must have been like to find out the person that meant so much to you was gone…..that’s it, without any closure. The movie was meant to depict that and also what it was like being gay and living a sheltered closeted life. Hats off to director Tom Ford for an outstanding movie! It wasn’t meant to be an on the edge of your seat blockbuster. It dealt with many issues, homosexuality, dealing with the loss of a loved one, loneliness, but most of all it dealt with love and life!

    • Currently 3/5 Stars
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 2:03 am

    I thought the movie was just ok. The acting was good, pretty much what I expected from both Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. Such powerful actors in what seems like a wasted script. The minutia of George’s life didn’t hold my attention. He was trying too hard to be nonchalant about his loss. I expected to see real grief, not a stiff upper lip. Charley is his best friend yet the movie showed, what, about 6 seconds of him agonizing with her.
    The color palette was beautiful. Very rich and yet subdued. The direction was VERY artistic and grand. Yet I found the movie to be more style than substance.
    While I’ll recomend this movie to friends, I will tell them to keep their expectations low..

  5. Harold
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 7:34 am

    While I appreciate the reviews from other viewers to help me decide if I want to watch this movie, could you please ax the spoiler alerts. I mean, really!

  6. Huck
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    First of all, it’s incredible that some of these pompous arrogant people writing comments feel the need to spoil the ending. Secondly, even more egregious, is that these comments are published.

    The movie is phenomenal. I watched it 3 times it 2 days. It’s haunting.
    Imagine the anguish and pain this man endured for the 8 months after the death of his partner of 16 years. Imagine if a secret phone call was all the notice you had, and even worse, that this secret caller forbid you from attending any memorial because it is ‘family only.’

    That is what life is like for millions of people in the good old USA, where homophobes have woven a threat out of nothing, and continue to oppress. This movie should be an epiphany for anyone intelligent enough to pay attention.

  7. Pat
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 10:43 am

    This movie was soooo slow,fell asleep twice!

  8. Valerie
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    My husband and I were bored to tears. The beginning started out well then went down hill from there. The clothing was great. There was an odd lighting going on that I didn’t like when he noticed people. I didn’t know what it was about when I rented it and I think the title should have been the way a gay man deals with grief.

    It was sad and depressing. I think that a gay person would possibly identify with this movie much more than my husband and I. I would be very sad to lose my husband and more upset if I couldn’t attend his funeral. This moving lacked happiness and joy. I know it was a story of grief and in the end he found someone to be with but there was no passion.

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    While I enjoyed the movie and thought it was well told, I think the visuals occasionally were too ‘glossy’ to the point of being distracting. The movie is a well-told story of love and loss, and Ford conveys this well. But whenever I would begin to empathize with George’s loss, along would come an unrealisticly polished-till-they-shined character to distract from the story. Whilst I felt pity for Charley, I genuinely empathized with George as his loss was outside of his control, yet he was facing and dealing with this loss. Charley’s pain was self-inflicted and she was doing little to resolve the situation. If you want to watch a story of romantic love told with subtle but deep drama, this is a good choice.

  9. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on July 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Carolss, I heartily agree–the first time through A Single Man Ford’s high-sheen of fashion-designer visuals were almost a distraction. But on a second viewing I realized how powerfully Firth’s performance and Isherwood’s themes pulled it all together. I have to give Ford the benefit of the doubt–it really does seem like he knew what he was doing, getting that performance from Firth and then making it all mesh together. So despite having my doubts about them at first, in the end I found the slick, rich visuals did in fact work well on the overall.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Ray Watspm
    Posted on July 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Could not suck enough!

    Posted on October 3, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    This movie was ok,very overrated,julianne moore has better movies and she is a hot MILF

  11. Man Deals
    Posted on September 7, 2011 at 11:17 am

    The movie is excellent but slow.overall fine.