Film Review – A Single Man

Tom Ford‘s directorial debut, A Single Man, looks stunning and rests squarely on the broad, experienced shoulders of Colin Firth, who quite deservedly won the BAFTA for Best Actor. Accusations that the film is an exercise in fashion porn are not entirely fair, although there is a moment in the final scene where a dressing-gown looks too immaculate for its own good. Where the film does fray slightly at the edges is in the overuse of cutting to close-up, and also dreamlike interludes, both of which interrupt the narrative flow just a few too many times.

George Falconer (Firth), is a professor of English at a California university during the 60s’ Cuban missile crisis, and is contemplating suicide having recently lost his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car crash. An affluent man, George is imprisoned by grief within his perfect glass and wood house, and straitjacketed by his immaculate suits, ties, cufflinks and shoes. He absentmindedly watches his neighbours on their front lawn, the camera framing him through the window and slots in the fence. The children dig up the lawn in search of treasure, and the mother helps, before then kissing her repressed and suited husband off to work, being held at arms length should she stain his suit with mud. The daughter cups a beautiful butterfly from a flower, before rolling the live creature to dust in her palms. It’s a violent world beneath all the suburban beauty and perfection.

Time grinds by, audibly so, second by heavy second. We are shown numerous shots of clocks during the film to make this point. We see in slow-motion as George drives his car, looking at his neighbours’ children playing on the lawn. He playfully returns fire with his hand in the shape of an imaginary gun, however, his view is restrained by the window frame of his classic Mercedes two-seater, burnished walnut dashboard and all.

So it goes on; he walks against a stream of college students who part around him like a river before returning to their natural state, barely acknowledging his presence in their world. There is a line of his dialogue where he unlovingly compares his students to ‘bovine creatures’, who will eventually spawn “coke snorting, jingle-cheering children who want to smash everything with a hammer”. There is a near-dalliance with Kenny, one of his students (a terrifyingly mature Nick Hoult, who has graduated from UK TV series, Skins, with honours), but this is scuppered by too much alcohol. The film offers this near-miss as a breakthrough in George’s recovery, but I’m not sure I’m convinced.

George perceives a death of beauty in the world and Eduard Grau‘s desaturated cinematography reflects this, with occasional moments of George’s sensual joy shown by a blush of red across the screen, which does become intrusive and should have been toned down. A high-contrast, black and white flashback sequence with Jim sunbathing on a rock, makes no effort not to look like an aftershave ad from GQ, and brings a little too much of Grau’s commercial style to a feature.

But to focus entirely on these things would be a huge disservice to Tom Ford, who has made a successfully introspective debut that, while not that emotional, is highly observational of a man restricted from publicly displaying his grief, as much as he was restricted from showing his love. Firth is an equal partner in the fabric of this production, in one scene, receiving the news by telephone of his lover’s death, moving from joviality, through repressed shock to grief within 30 odd seconds.

Firth said getting the opportunity to play this character was like ‘career Viagra’. Let us hope he’s got a few more of those blue pills in his pocket.

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