After watching the first five minutes of director Tom Ford’s debut film A Single Man (2009), I started to fear the worst. Between the slow motion-accentuated, visually abstracted images of a nude male body submerged in an endless body of water, punctuated by the yearning sounds of a violin, I leaned over to my wife and whispered “Oh no. This could be a feature length version of an Obsession commercial.” Ford’s background as the former creative director for Gucci and a prominent fashion designer left me ambivalent as to his ability to construct a meaningful film. An hour and half later, my fears were utterly annihilated and I was struck by the sentiment that A Single Man is not only one of the most aesthetically accomplished films of the year but a film that also finds balance beyond form in the drama of the script (adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel by Ford and David Scearce) and the amazing performances (particularly those of Colin Firth and Julianne Moore) contained within.
The film takes place during the span of one day during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in southern California. George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British professor of English at a local college, is in the midst of grappling with the heartbreaking loss of his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), to a fatal car accident. As the world around him begins to be crippled with the fear of nuclear holocaust, George decides to speed his ultimate alienation from society by committing suicide. After finishing what he believes to be his final lecture, George drives home, places his last will and testament and letters to his family and friends on his desk, loads the gun and presses the cold barrel into his mouth. Yet, when the time comes, George cannot pull the trigger. He’s been trying to find some remnants of connection to the world around him throughout the day and while he has been both unable and unwilling to find an equivalent for the love he shared with Jim, he has found fleeting moments of beauty that force him to question making such a rash decision.
This reversal comes at the end of the first act of the film. Ford relays George’s devastation to us thanks to a poetic use of sound (particularly his utilization of rain and clocks), subjective flashbacks, and a haunting score by Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi. Yet, Ford has not allowed us, like George, to become completely submerged in the loss of a loved one. As George mediates on the color of a young girl’s dress or on the scent of a cigarette, Ford shifts from a monochromatic color palate to an aesthetic based around sensual slow motion, vivid colors, and abstracted images. Triggered by George’s attempts, to quote Walt Whitman, to seek “the spheres, to connect them,” Ford puts the viewer into the filmic equivalent of an urban Monet painting. Indeed, George’s situation is painful and nearly unbearable, but there is also a great deal of humor, promise, and hope to be found as well.
These latter aspects of George’s situation dominate the second half of the film. Following the darkly funny scene in which he attempts to do himself in (which reminded me of Elton John’s legendary suicide attempt), George makes one final attempt at establishing some sort of meaningful connection to the outside world. Through a gin and tonic with an old friend (Julianne Moore) and a moonlit swim with a young student (Nicholas Hoult), George finds his day ending on an unexpected note. Yes, the void left by Jim’s death cannot be filled or dismissed but there are other means of coping. In the end, the humor and hope of these exchanges, anchored in Ford’s confident formalism, keep the film from veering into complete melodrama, pushing the film towards an apex that is profoundly deeper and more nuanced and expected.
Yet, Ford’s film would have been a beautiful failure of an Obsession commercial if a confident and original approach to visual aesthetics had been the only quality holding the film together. Ford never allows his stylistic flourishes to eclipse the phenomenally portrayed characters. Julianne Moore’s performance as a middle-aged divorcée who urges George to run away with her perfectly captures the film’s tonal high-wire routine. Nicholas Hoult, who nearly a decade ago played the young boy in About a Boy (2002), has matured a great deal and is a performer to keep an eye on. Matthew Goode, who seemed somewhat wooden earlier this year in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), perfectly embodies the subject of George’s desire.
This said, the film’s center is to be found in Colin Firth’s Oscar-worthy performance. George is emotionally restrained, yet Firth’s eyes and small shifts in emphasis in his facial muscles tell us so much more than dialogue can. Like the Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love (2000), which also featured the musical arrangements of Shigeru Umebayashi, A Single Man is a profoundly sensual experience that never loses itself beyond the experiences of the characters contained within. I applaud Tom Ford’s ability to balance the poetic and the dramatic and eagerly await his follow-up because, quite simply, A Single Man is one of the best films of the year.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.