A Single Man (2009)
Director: Tom Ford
Screenplay: Tom Ford
Novel: Christopher Isherwood
Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Houlot, Matthew Goode
A Single Man is Tom Ford, the fashion designer’s, first entrée into film. To his credit, the former creative director at Gucci chose a literary inspiration, the writer Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name, and has created a powerful, suitably stylish, piece of work. It is to Ford’s credit, as well, that he chose gay themes for his inaugural effort. Hollywood’s commercial gay paranoia clearly has no power over this man who has already made millions, in a world where homosexuality is most likely a business advantage. And thanks to Colin Firth, who plays a British expatriate teaching English at UCLA, and Julianne Moore, his long-time friend and former lover, this story has a sense of poignancy and depth to it that belies, in some ways, its lack of plot.
It is 1962, half-a-decade before the Stonewall riots in New York would propel gay liberation into the public eye. George Falconer (Firth), a middle-aged professor, grieves the loss of his long-term partner, (Matthew Goode) in a car accident, so much so, that he has decided to commit suicide. The movie follows his day of reckoning, begin-middle-and end, with flashbacks that fill-in the basis for Falconer’s grief. It is the twists in the man’s nearly pathetically well-laid plans, that create added tension and, for the audience, a sense of hope.
Visual beauty is all over the film. Ford’s fashion eye offers stunning youth on display at Falconer’s college work setting, a house that is all 60’s contemporary without a bit of irony, and details, everywhere that add to the narrative without a line of dialogue. Narrative poignancy comes from the reality, here, that in 1962, there was not yet a place in society to declare male love. How is someone supposed to grieve unspoken love?
Julianne Moore, one of the most versatile actresses in film, plays an alcoholic divorcee who offers friendship and comfort to Firth’s character, without an ounce of understanding. Their booze-washed farewell dinner is a scene that Ford, the director, can always be proud of.
Ultimately, “A Single Man” becomes muddled. On the one hand, there is a redemption rudely taken away, but on the other, a story that adds-up to something less than a character study or record of gay history, told fictionally. Christopher Isherwood, most famous as the celebrated author of the short stories which would ultimately become the theater piece and movie, “Cabaret”, was clearly ahead of his time, in terms of a personal liberation as a gay man in Hollywood, living with a much-younger lover (there is a wonderful recent documentary about the relationship, called Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007)). However, as a writer, he was perhaps less ahead of his time, and more stuck in it. “A Single Man” never transcends the pathetic world it so stylishly illustrates. George Falconer dies without changing anyone’s mind, even his own.
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