Tom Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man is unspeakably gorgeous to behold. From the glorious cinematography to the impossibly beautiful actors and actresses; no frame is wasted on anything even close to ugliness. It is impeccable. But since when has prettiness equalled good filmmaking? Ford is primarily a fashion designer and photographer, and it shows. He is best known for his five year tenure as Creative Director for Gucci, during which time he turned the nearly bankrupt fashion label into a powerhouse valued at $US4.3 billion. This man has had a lot of success in the business of beauty. However, filmmaking is a different game, and aesthetic appeal only gets you so far.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a closeted English professor struggling to deal with the unexpected death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode). The year is 1962 and George can hardly express or explain his grief to the people around him. Perhaps his only true friend is Charley (Julianne Moore), a middle aged woman who loves him, despite knowing full well that he does not reciprocate in quite the same way. The film takes place over the course of one day in George’s life, beginning on the very morning he plans to kill himself. Throughout the day he will encounter various people who will remind him of the richness of life, and others will remind him why he has decided to end it.
There is something oddly disquieting about a first time director with so much confidence. A Single Man (based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name) has a singular vision, and it’s undeniably Ford’s. But the project feels more like a perfume commercial rather than a feature film. There is so much symbolism; endless, endless symbolism. Metaphors range from the glaring to the obvious. The colour palette fluctuates (annoyingly) between drab and over-saturated, in time with George’s own emotions. Perhaps this is why I’m bothered by the confidence of the direction here; it feels like Ford thinks he has nothing left to learn, when that is far from the truth. The talents required to put together an attractive fashion spread for a magazine do not directly translate to the composition of a film. The composition of a frame? Yes! But we need to engage with these tragic characters more than we do the dead-eyed supermodels in Ford’s Gucci catalogue.
The heart of the film comes from Firth, who is phenomenal. The hype and the Oscar nomination are well deserved. Elegant and effete, with a bruised soul to boot. Best of all are his glimpses of cheekiness, his razor wit, his flirtatious glances, his moments of pure vulnerability. He doesn’t overwhelm with gravitas; he doesn’t release an anguished howl towards the heavens when he receives news of Jim’s passing. This is a man who has spent his whole life hiding from the world, to the point that he’s not even sure how much of himself he should reveal, even when alone.
Julianne Moore is also great as Charley; it’s a fun role, and a short one, but being Julianne Moore, she doesn’t phone it in. Also excellent is Matthew Goode as the late Jim, revealed through flashbacks as lovable and perfect. Sure, that’s exactly how George would remember him. But Jim never seems like a cliché and the credit belongs entirely to Goode. Also memorable are Nicholas Hoult and Jon Kortajarena as two boys who cross George’s path during this fateful day. Although Hoult’s role is bigger (as one of George’s students), Kortajarena leaves the biggest mark, as a friendly but very sad hustler.
I’m reminded of another film in which the filmmaker gets in the way of his highly capable cast: Lee Daniels with Precious. Although Ford’s direction is not nearly as egregious as fellow first timer Daniels, it is similarly in your face. It’s one thing to consistently remind the viewer that they are watching a film; it’s another to convince them that they are pawing through a fashion catalogue. A shame really, because the number of mainstream films featuring gay or lesbian characters (let alone led by them) remains a rare commodity. You would hope that the few that receive a theatrical release would be of the highest quality. Sadly, if it wasn’t for Firth, A Single Man would be little more than a vapid exercise in art decoration. Still, what beautiful art decoration!