Movie review by Greg Carlson
Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his feature directorial debut with “A Single Man,” a fairly loose adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name. The film covers the events of one day in the life of literature professor George Falconer, whose grief at the death of his longtime companion has stirred suicidal thoughts. George remembers Jim (Matthew Goode) in flashbacks that interrupt his routine and derail his prepared lecture on Aldous Huxley. Even as he makes preparations to kill himself – a melodramatic detail absent in the book – George meets with a curious student, gently navigates the subtle disapproval of his hetero neighbors, turns down a Spanish hustler in front of a giant billboard for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and dances to “Green Onions” with an old friend.
Ford’s presence as director and co-writer – he adapted Isherwood’s novel with David Scearce – draws a great deal of attention to the costuming and design of the film, and sometimes the slick perfection of the film’s aesthetic threatens to overwhelm the senses. The supporting cast members seem to have been selected from the pages of “Vogue Hommes International” and the movie occasionally takes on the atmosphere of a cologne or wristwatch advertisement. Cinematographer Eduard Grau devises a muted, monochromatic palette of somber grays and blacks that periodically blossoms into vivid hues of blues and reds whenever George momentarily lets his mind wander away from dark thoughts.
As George, Colin Firth navigates the 1962 setting with quiet power. Much of the film depends on restrained introspection and self-examination, and Firth masterfully communicates the depth of George’s anguish non-verbally (fortunately, the film’s use of voiceover narration is applied sparingly). The indispensable Julianne Moore appears in one of the movie’s finest scenes as Charley, George’s perpetually inebriated confidante, and the two performers engage in a terrific pas de deux in which George holds his tongue when Charley reaches out to him in her hopelessly misplaced optimism.
Some gay viewers might take exception to several of Ford’s compromises and alterations. Keith Uhlich, writing in “Time Out New York,” complained that Ford has made George “allegorically alien,” and that “too many movies subscribe to the regressive notion that queers are unassailable victims of fate and circumstance.” Uhlich offers evidence of his argument by noting the movie’s scene in which George is not invited to Jim’s funeral. In the novel, George turns down the invitation. Of course, Firth plays the movie version of the scene beautifully, and Anthony Lane defends Ford’s amendment, alluding to period expectations that dictated social prohibitions to gay men.
Ford might not be as accomplished a filmmaker as he is a clothing designer, but “A Single Man” flirts with the intersection of loneliness and self-pity in a manner not so easily dismissed. The movie is not great, and it might not even be really good, but the airless, impeccable idealization pursued by its director appropriately matches the emotional landscapes traversed by its title character. Both Ford and George Falconer depend on outward appearances and the trappings (and traps) of style. Like George, many of us have also believed that we can overcome personal tragedy and loss, even though we discover that the reality of putting everything in its right place is not such an easy thing to do.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/22/10.