At TIFF: A Single Man
Even as Tom Ford's writing-directing debut A Single Man was always destined for the hype (and distribution deal) attending its Toronto Film Festival debut, it seemed equally bound to be beautiful, elegant and, well, good. It is all of those things and not a whole lot more -- a showcase for Ford's eye and Colin Firth's chops, a perfect storm of unfailing taste. Christopher Isherwood's source novel about a gay professor (played here by Firth) grappling with the death of his lover in the 1960s Los Angeles rewards both men's efforts with a substance they wouldn't have otherwise, and the results yield the awards-ready class that will sweep enlightened audiences (and, presumably, the Academy) off their feet. Beyond that, however, the primary impact that will stick with most viewers is how much more Man could have been.
Ford locks down the film's homoerotic creds from the start, submerging a naked male figure in deep, murky waters between flashbacks to the snowy car wreck that claimed Prof. George Falconer's 16-year companion Jim (Matthew Goode) eight months earlier. It's a dream, it's a nightmare, and it's apparently the last one George is resigned to having. He packs a pistol in his bag during the slow buildup to his first day attempting a return to normal life, even as it will be his last day on Earth; he approaches his incidental relationships, from cleaning lady to college receptionist, with a magnanimity that is the only charity he knows. Ford shoots the interactions in extreme close-up, specifying George's affinities (eyelashes here, jewelry there) with his singularly stylish attention to detail.
Firth, meanwhile, defies the extraordinary emotion of the film's prologue, when the news of Jim's death melts him in his chair. He flees to the arms of next-door neighbor Charlotte (Julianne Moore), another Brit with a significantly stronger flair for the dramatic and a history of loneliness that comes to radically contradict George's own isolation. Man finds its true heart in their interactions; like her crisis-stricken wife in the far superior melodrama Chloe, Moore's Charlotte would sooner forfeit her pride than succumb to middle-age. George experiences a reverse sensation, unapologetically clinging to his torch for Jim while refuting life entirely.
Left alone during this fine, extended interlude, the actors channel the palpable sincerity of Isherwood's material. Give Ford credit for leaving them alone -- liberating them, really, from his technical stunts that overpower virtually all of George's other interactions. Most disruptive are the palette-shifting tricks that announce various levels of sensation: A cute student (Nicholas Hoult) who chooses the wrong day to come on to his professor nudges George's desaturated point of view to a sanguine pinkish-yellow; the smoldering Latino whom George literally runs into at a liquor store inflames the screen with a garish near-crimson. Puppies, little girls, and a range of other smoggy Angeleno stimuli have similar influences, resulting in an effect more grating than it is sensual, like the overactive zoom lens of a B-grade kung-fu flick. (I even could have sworn Ford deployed actual hints of perfume, dogs and halitosis in the theater upon their reference in the film, but perhaps that's just another tribute to his evocativeness.)
Again, though, there is redemption in Isherwood himself, and both Ford and Firth seem to work independently to mine what they can from that legacy. Exquisitely appointed and designed, A Single Man stops short of fetishizing its 1962 period the way we'd see in Mad Men; Ford deeply respects the era even as he singles out the "invisibility" of gays at that time, and he's at his best exploring that contrast. He has no doubt found his voice as a filmmaker, and while Ford clearly loves its sound, Firth cooperates only insofar as he produces a genuine mourning for Ford's camera to inhale. His resolution to die stems not necessarily even from a desire to join Jim, but rather from his last chance at self-actualization.
Ford clearly gets that, but A Single Man simply looks too good to feel that bad. His affectations may work in the ad-heavy front 40 pages of a Vogue or Vanity Fair issue, but onscreen they expose the anguish and the artifice of beauty -- a fraud at worst, which fuels both George's downfall and A Single Man's own. In other words: The Academy will love it.