A Single Man

A Single Man is the story of George played by Colin Firth, a repressed gay Englishman living in Los Angeles in 1962.  Because this is the early 1960s George must remain deeply closeted, which is difficult because eight months before his lover was killed in a car wreck.  He cannot grieve openly for fear of being discovered which would ruin his career.  The family would not even let him attend the funeral.  And it seems he cannot grieve at all because that would crack his veneer of perfection.  The only thing keeping him together is his daily routine.  He is a portrait of quiet desperation.

The film follows George as he goes through what he intends to be his last day, starting out in the morning as he dresses and grooms himself impeccably.  His perfect appearance is obviously a shield and a mask for the outside world.  At the same time the ritual of obtaining this perfection creates a wall between himself and the whirlwind of emotions that he must be feeling. Thus protected he goes to work where he teaches Huxley to a literature class at a local college.

That night he gets together with his closest remaing friend in the world a woman named Charley, played by Julianne Moore, a fellow ex-Brit who drinks heavily and with whom he once had an unsuccessful and unsatisfying affair.  That is all I can tell you about the plot of director Tom Ford’s first film based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood.

Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first: Colin Firth is terrific in this. He has your sympathy from the first frame to the last, even though the character is a very controlled and pessimistic man. The way he can convey intense emotion with a face that is tightly closed is just amazing. Firth has always been one of our better actors but with A Single Man he moves into the top tier of leading men.
Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who apparently took Gucci from the brink of bankruptcy and turned it into a profitable company.  His only other film credits are that he was in the costume department for A Quantum of Solace and he had a cameo as himself in Zoolander.  It’s amazing that he could direct a film this good with so sparse a background.  He uses that background to make a very good looking film. Every shot looks like a fashion layout from an old Look magazine you might find in your parents’ attic.  At the beginning the color is bleached out giving the film almost a sepia tone. But as George’s mood improves color saturates the frame. The effect is a bit heavy-handed but startling as well.
This trick with the color is not the only place where Ford hits us over the head. Symbolism in both dialogue and image pour over you like a flood. Ford’s main theme is the masks that hidden and oppressed minorities like gay people need to wear to function in regular society but there is also a scene in a lecture hall where George goes off on a tangent about fear. It speaks to today’s issues but it doesn’t really fit in and it kind of jarred me out of the story.  Also the end of the story was a little too patly ironic.
But the film succeeds in spite of these caveats, and you have to see it for Colin Firth alone. A Single Man is one of the best looking and best acted films of the year.

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