At one point not so long ago, it was the big joke that what everyone in Hollywood who wasn’t already doing so really wanted to do was direct. While that often led to disastrous results, one can still muster high hopes for directorial debuts from the likes of someone as sophisticated as Tom Ford, most known for his work in fashion as a designer. With “A Single Man”, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, Ford takes everything he knows about style and substance and translates his impeccable attention to detail from the runway to the big screen. In doing so, he has not only made a first feature that stands out with incredible promise for his future endeavors but he has also made one of the best films this year amongst directors both fresh and seasoned.
It is November 1962 and it has been eight months since George (Colin Firth) lost his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident. We meet George on a very important day; it is the day in which he has decided will be his last. From the moment he wakes, he looks as though the battle is already lost. Every movement, every task looks laboured and difficult to manage. George has been living too long without the love that gave his life meaning and the manner in which Firth carries George allows his pain to resonate past the screen. I’m not a huge Firth fan; I’ve got nothing against him but I’ve never been thoroughly engaged by anything he’s done prior to this. That said, I can honestly say that his work in “A Single Man” is the singular best work of his career. He even eclipses a ravishing Julianne Moore! His eyes are sad, his demeanor is heavy but it is the constant struggle between the restraint he is required to exhibit publicly and the emotional collapse he is hiding beneath the surface of every pore that makes Firth unforgettable.
As one would expect, any film by Tom Ford is going to look good. Lensed by up and coming Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau, with production design by “Mad Men” designer Dan Bishop, “A Single Man” is both sensual and authentic. It also has the point of view of an easily distracted gay man with a roaming eye. Conversations about the Cuban missile crisis can only hold George’s attention for so long before his eyes turn to close-up shots of shirtless men playing tennis or something equally tantalizing. Not only is this perspective one that would have been spit upon in 1962, it is still a rare find today to come across a film that is unapologetically gay. Ford, an openly gay man himself, clearly has no interest in pandering to anyone as a filmmaker and the directness with which he tells this painful story of loss and loneliness is invigorating and commendable.
George likes to think of himself as invisible. After Jim’s death, he did everything he could to be exactly that but he felt that way long before this. For George, and sadly for so many others, being gay means having to swallow any words that might affirm who you are. The goal is to go unnoticed and it isn’t all that difficult. People see what they want to see and can go on living in that ignorant bliss for a long time until they can’t anymore. In George’s world, he lived as open a life as he could, even going so far as to live with his lover in a glass house, but that meant scrutiny. What they refused to see before, they don’t want to see now and with no outlet to validate the love that George lost, his life loses all meaning. Fortunately, Ford frames George’s plight with sympathy and care and subsequently, “A Single Man” becomes more than just a film – it becomes an indisputable argument for a generation of gay men and women still fighting for their civil rights today.
Review by Joseph Bélanger