Movies: A Single Man * * * *
American reviews of Tom Ford's A Single Man have tended to complain that it looks too neat, is too meticulous in its evocation of the early 60s, too fussy overall in fact, and that its principal characters are too well-dressed.
But these caveats seem to me to emanate from critics more obsessed with Tom Ford the person -- a fashion designer, former model, one of the best-looking men in the world -- than the film they are actually watching.
There may be some snobbery at work too: the man comes from the airhead world of fashion, for God's sake, and, what's more, this is his first film -- it can't be that good, can it?
Well, it's not perfect, not by any means, but, for a feature debut, it's pretty damned impressive. And while Mr Ford does make a few clumsy mis-steps, including an erroneous voiceover, he more than makes up for them with a flair for visual lyricism and a heartening willingness to experiment. He also has the good sense to let his actors alone as much as possible, and in the case of his leading man Colin Firth, this policy pays rich dividends.
Firth is George Falconer, a middle-aged English college professor who lives and works in Los Angeles. It's 1962, and beneath the veneer of his lush lifestyle and prestigious job, George is not coping well at all. George is gay, a fact he necessarily keeps to himself given the climate of the times, and he is struggling hard to deal with the sudden death of his longterm partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), some months earlier.
In the film's most affecting scene, we watch George's mood change from bluff good humour to despair when he receives a phone call to tell him Jim is dead, and his subsequent bereavement seems to be heightened by the fact that he can have no official role as a griever.
George's response to this devastating tragedy is to stiffen his upper lip and go about his business as usual. When he dons his narrow-collared suits and matching tie each morning, his fastidious dress seems like a suit of armour. But, if so, it's not a very effective one, and on the day we meet him George has decided he can no longer go on and will kill himself.
As a consequence, when George goes about his business on what he assumes will be his last day on Earth, he sees the world in a way he has never done before. Nature, his students, even the annoying children next door seem suffused with a golden, Godly light, and as the day proceeds George's wistfulness grows.
He visits his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore) for drinks, has a philosophical encounter with a Spanish male prostitute (Jon Kortajarena), and is surprised to find a soulful fellow traveller (Nicholas Hoult) among his students. But nothing -- not Charley, who's in love with him, not even the beautiful student -- can console him for the loss of his great love, whom we meet in warm domestic flashbacks. But a late night encounter finally begins to make George reconsider the wisdom of his plan.
If all of this sounds a bit insubstantial, perhaps it is. This is a mood piece, an evocation of time and place and the loneliness of one man's predicament. But for all its apparent slenderness, it's at times very moving, and the acting by and large is excellent. Nicholas Hoult (who was the little boy in About a Boy) has grown up into an extraordinary-looking man, and is very good as the sensitive student. And Matthew Goode is unrecognisable from the Oirish goon you will shortly see in the dreadful Leap Year.
Julianne Moore's performance is more problematic, and is more of an accent (her character being English) than a characterisation: this is one instance where Ford might have stepped in to tone down her Ab Fab excesses. But Colin Firth has never been better, brilliantly portraying a stiff and reserved man who hides behind a mordant wit but whose misery and suffering is etched into every weary smile.