A Single Man

Movie Information

The Story: A college professor, unable to cope with the death of his lover, plans to kill himself at the end of the day. The Lowdown: A stunning filmmaking debut from Tom Ford finds a perfect match with an inspired cast -- Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult -- to create a genuinely remarkable film. Not to be missed.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena
Rated: R

Tom Ford’s A Single Man is many things — including one of the most assured directorial debuts in memory. I’m bringing that up at the very onset because I’ve passed the saturation point with reviews that focus on Ford’s status as a fashion designer with an eye toward finding his direction “fussy” or any number of other code words that just skirt the same kind of prejudice that’s at the core of the quiet tragedy of the film. I suspect this is unconscious in most cases, but it gets a little close to resembling the neighbor in the film who has told his daughter that he’d like to kill George (Colin Firth) for no reason other than he thinks George is “light in the loafers.” In their own way, these reviews may serve the function of illustrating that A Single Man is considerably more relevant now than its 1962 period setting might suggest.

The film is based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, and it follows one day in the life of college professor George Falconer — the day on which he has decided to commit suicide. The reason behind Falconer’s decision is that he cannot bear the pain arising from the death of his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), which happened eight months earlier. That at least is the surface reason, but there’s a good deal more going on beneath that surface — just as there’s a good deal more going on beneath the visual panache of Ford’s direction.

Ford’s film is put together to build the case that it’s not just Jim’s death that plagues George, but rather the extreme sense of being alone that goes with such a death in a closeted world. It’s done slowly, meticulously and persuasively, with flashbacks illustrating much of this. The most harrowing is the surreptitious phone call from a relative of Jim informing George of his lover’s death —  a call made without the knowledge or approval of Jim’s parents and one in which it’s made clear George is not wanted at the funeral. Even though George knows the score — he’s been playing the game all his life —  and can keep his feelings in check over the phone, the devastation of both the loss and the fact that he has been written out of Jim’s life is palpable.

Bad as it is, the phone call may not be the worst of it. There’s the simple fact of being denied the right to grieve — and what turns out to be the surprising lack of understanding and sympathy from the one person, Charley (Julianne Moore), George can talk to, who dismisses his 16 years with Jim as something other than “a real relationship.”

George’s attempts to get through the day and carry out his plans are almost as bad. He even makes a vague stab at coming out to his class at the university, but, of course, stops himself. An encounter with a sympathetic hustler (Spanish TV actor Jon Kortjarena) offers a bittersweet reminder of connecting with other people, but more important are the attentions of a nervous student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, The Weather Man), who, like the hustler, thinks George needs a friend. The question is, what kind of friend? Refreshingly, that’s a question that never loses a degree of ambiguity.

It would be a disservice to the film to reveal anything more than I already have. Let it speak for itself, which it’s quite capable of doing. Like a few other critics, I have some reservations about the ending, though I will say that it isn’t a twist and has been built into the proceedings. Overall, though, this is real filmmaking (Ford’s use of color and formal composition techniques is a good deal more than “surface” trimming) with the acting to back it up. It might be argued that George is the role that Colin Firth was born to play, and it might equally be argued that his internalized intensity here will add to one’s appreciation of his other, often underrated, performances. Rate R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

9 thoughts on “A Single Man

  1. Dionysis

    This isn’t the type of subject matter that I would normally be interested in, but given this review and the fact that I really like Colin Firth (I’ve never seen a bad performance from him), I will go see this film.

  2. Tom Ford’s A Single Man is many things — including one of the most assured directorial debuts in memory.
    How does it stack up to CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and SYNECDOCHE, NY in this regard?

  3. Ken Hanke

    How does it stack up to CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and SYNECDOCHE, NY in this regard?

    Unfair to assess that. I’ve know the others for a while. I’ve known this since last Friday. But there are several films I’d add to the list of impressive, assured debuts. Without thinking about it too hard — and without going back to antiquity — Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brick, Titus and Love Actually come to mind.

  4. davidf

    “How does it stack up to CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and SYNECDOCHE, NY in this regard?”

    The comparison is even harder to make when you realize how little experience Tom Ford has had in the filmmaking process in general before A SINGLE MAN. Other than appearing as himself in ZOOLANDER and some fashion documentaries, I think Ford’s only work in film was as a tailor for QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I really can’t think of an equally inexperienced first time filmmaker to compare him to.

  5. Ken Hanke

    The comparison is even harder to make when you realize how little experience Tom Ford has had in the filmmaking process in general before A SINGLE MAN. Other than appearing as himself in ZOOLANDER and some fashion documentaries, I think Ford’s only work in film was as a tailor for QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I really can’t think of an equally inexperienced first time filmmaker to compare him to.

    This is an excellent point. I suppose you could compare him to Rouben Mamoulian or Orson Welles, but then they had stage or stage and radio experience, which mightn’t have given them a clue about filmmaking, but at least gave them a grounding in drama and dealing with actors. Really of those named, only John Cameron Mitchell and Rian Johnson don’t have a professional film background leading them in.

  6. Steven Adam Renkovish

    So, I saw this film, loved it, and wrote a glowing review for The Easley Progress, which the editor refused to print in the paper, all because of the subject matter. I was told that if the review were to run in the paper, I’d probably get hate mail, and if I did, they’d never let me write for the column again. I should have known better, but at least I tried to combat the ingorance of my hometown. I was more than a little pissed off when they decided not to run the thing…Oh, well. That’s what I get for refusing to comform, and exclusively write reviews for “safe” films. Ugh. Discouraged, but proud of myself at the same time…

  7. Ken Hanke

    I was told that if the review were to run in the paper, I’d probably get hate mail, and if I did, they’d never let me write for the column again.

    Now, that is a very odd business model. I cannot conceive of a critic who doesn’t get hate mail. I cannot imagine a paper that wouldn’t realize that this at least means people are actually reading you.

  8. Jim Donato

    While I remain impressed by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Synecdoche, NY, the best directorial debut comparison that I think should be made is between A Single Man Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat. In either case you have a visual artist diving into a medium of emotions. As much as I liked Schnabel’s debut (and his subsequent films even moreso, I find A Single Man succeeds wildly by fusing Ford’s visual acumen with real humanity. The stunning visuals (color saturation, film grain and composition are all expertly manipulated) act as emotional mirrors for the internal conflicts of the protagonist.

  9. Ken Hanke

    If it comes down to Schnabel vs. Ford, then Ford wins without question for me. I might admire Schnabel’s films, but they rarely engage me emotionally and have no lingering impact. In terms of where Ford could go as a filmmaker, I think it’s pretty much limitless. I don’t see Schnabel ever going beyond a very specialized audience. That, by the way, is less a criticism than an observation.

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