Tom Ford's adaptation of the Isherwood novel of the same name is a thoughtful, somber piece, where he has adroitly assembled his players into a mise en scène that presages gay liberation amongst academia during the 1960's and 1970's (think of our favorite lesbian feminist, Camille Paglia). The curtain raises on fair Los Angeles. Our 1950's/1960's stage is set with beatnik students, gin-pickled former best-friends-with-benefits pining for players on the wrong side of the plate, homophobic neighbor, broken-hearted and erudite professors waxing eloquent about fear, and one ghost of a love, the paragon of love as all truly remarkable once-in-a-lifetime loves should be.
I think it can be said that Colin Firth never phones it in. Even in his performances in cotton candy roles as Amanda Bynes's father in What a Girl Wants, or as the charmster and all-around-good-guy Mark Darcy in Bridgett Jones's Diary, Colin Firth brings, if not his A-game, at least his B+ game. As professor George Falconer, he nails this role. Superb. If Firth were waiting on the beach to open his grades (a la the last scene in Paper Chase), and folded the unopened envelope into a paper airplane and threw it into the surf, there thrashing about the tangled kelp beds of the the Pacific shoreline would be the grade of A+ for this role. Firth occupies almost every shot, and the camera just
loves the guy (and so does director Tom Ford), in his sharp bespoke suits, well-coiffed hair, tan skin, and tall lean visage. Ford the fashion icon even has John Hamm from Mad Men -- that purveyor of all-things 50's cool -- phone-in a voice-over role, basically uninviting George to the funeral of his great love. The interesting choice of Hamm is that in Mad Men, his character tells the bi-sexual (or is it married-gay?) Sal that he's not just an ad man, but also a fine director. Tom Ford can direct as well, and he doesn't need Hamm or us to tell him so.
A Single Man presents a pivotal day in the life of Falconer who is barely coping with the death of his partner from a year earlier. Mathew Goode plays the dotting partner, Jim, subsumed to the arrangement of their union which must not be spoken, though is guessed by neighbors. Every morning is a struggle for George to just get out of bed and fake it through to the end of the day. There are bottles of scotch in desks, and calls from his friend Charlotte to help him get there. As Falconer moves about the city, we witness men and women eyeing him longingly; he is a catch to be sure, and even wives of angry homophobic men find him desirous, inviting him to drinks. Though, I'm not sure I like Falconer, Ford presents his life of elan and fine things as the sine qua non for the professorate. Who doesn't like that? He seems standoffish.
He's a loner for the most part, not very gregarious, and certainly not swimming in friendships, making his loss of Jim all that more poignant, propelling him further into loneliness. If Falconer were a single straight man, perhaps there wouldn't be much of a movie here. It's the difficulty that this British college professor has finding someone to love, who is his intellectual equal --as his partner, Jim, an architect, was -- and who knows the score of what can be said and done in public. Falconer's loss is epic, not just because the eligible population of gay men in the 50's is probably less than a tenth of a percent, but also because Falconer doesn't seem to suffer fools gladly -- gay or not. The title suggests not just Falconer's being a single man after the death of his partner, Jim, but also that this person was the single man that George found to make a life with.
There's a conversation that takes place out in the desert between Falconer and Jim; he is asked about his friend Charlotte, who is also from England. The redoubtable Julianne Moore has played this role before, and Charley is indeed a messed-up, boozy, disposable ex-wife with kids she no longer sees. He confesses that yes, he's slept with women, and that he and Charley dated for a bit, but now she is his best friend. It's interesting that today there is a disdain if a gay person references their "straightness" prior to their gay lifestyle or after. That somehow, taking a run at the straight life either early or later in one's life (witness Andy Dick, Anne Heche, or Alan Cummings) is met with a "make-up your mind already" retort and a sneer. Ford offers this exchange between these men with no judgment; they are having a frank conversation about an interloper of the opposite sex, and Falconer confirms his love and allegiance to his partner. The flip side of that conversation takes place over a decade later in Charlotte's living room, and Falconer confirms for his dear friend that his love for Jim was not an ersatz bohemian convenient lifestyle choice, but a soul-searing bond for life that was wrenched from his now empty life.
What makes a director great is having an opinion about the material being adapted. Here Ford reveals that opinion with bold choices, surrounding himself with top talent to execute his vision of cool hues of Falconer's now dull existence juxtaposed with moments of warm clarity and connectedness to his fellow man (and life). A connectedness that Falconer confesses he experiences less and less. Ford sparingly colors Firth's appearance (very much like Gary Ross coloring Joan Allen in Pleasantville) when he has one of these moments. He walks into the bank to clear out his safety-deposit box, setting "everything in its right place" (nod to RadioHead), and has a moment with his neighbor's child -- she appears seemingly out of nowhere with her robin's-egg bluest-of-blue shoes, dress, and eyes. Falconer's face and color warms, as he stares into not just a child's azure peepers, but into his own spirituality ... the eyes of a potential life. Earlier in the film, George explains to a student at the student store that blue is associated with spirituality, whilst red is associated with lust and anger. Here, Ford gives Firth's character a moment of pause, to connect once again to something outside of himself and, indeed, his pain. Too late. The moment's over, and the color has faded from his cheeks. The very next scene, Falconer pulls into the parking lot to purchase some gin for Charlotte, and he parks, this time staring directly into the eyes of death. Before him is a large ad for Hitchcock's Psycho, with Janet Leigh's eyes peering into Falconer's Mercedes. It's a nice touch.
Throughout A Single Man Ford allows the professor moments of remembrance, a form of animism or synesthesia perhaps, where his touch animates these objects or brings forth vivid images or memories. At the ringing of a phone, the scent of a Jack Russel terrier, a rose's texture, and we are transported with George to a moment in his life with Jim for further backstory or exposition into what makes George, George. We see where George and Jim met at "Starboard Side" (which I believe is the local watering hole Chez Jay on Ocean Ave.), with Jim still in the service, perhaps a jab against current "don't ask, don't tell" policy. We see Jim and George sitting, legs akimbo, on the couch with their terrier snoozing between them, arguing over whose turn it is to change the record. Poignant vignettes like that fill Single Man.
Any hunk of a professor must have a stalker or two, male and female, and the student stalking George is "Kenny" as played by Nicholas Hoult. You'll recall Hoult as the boy in About a Boy, produced and directed by the Weitz brothers. Chris Weitz produced this film as well, and enlisted Hoult for this role. Hoult is almost unrecognizable as the college-age, hard-bodied student enthralled by his professor. It now seems de rigueur that all former British child stars attempt to shed their boyish personas by taking roles that require romps or rides in the nude, e.g., Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliff atop Equus in the buff, and now Hoult in Single Man showing his buffed-out self. In the surf for a midnight skinny-dip, Kenny shouts to George "we're invisible!" as the professor worries about being seen in such a state. And, that, I think, is what the subtext of this film represents, a paean to no longer being invisible, but accepted and visible, and ultimately, ironically, invisible once again because no one notices two adult men in a loving, committed relationship. But, this will never happen; one's sexuality is so politicized (How many variants of "sex" are there now? Five or six? I can't recall) today, that the so-called "gay-mafia," liberal "thought police," religious extremists, and others with agendas will not hear the conversation the rest of us are trying to have above the din of disagreement and personal destruction. Admittedly, my "straightness" has colored my perspective, but I think I know when my faith, or straight lifestyle precludes a fair review of a film, book, or play. But, I guess that judgment is up to you, Dear Reader.
The ending of this film surprised me, and I found it satisfying. I think Ford found a hold on this material emanating from personal experience; it'll be interesting to see what Ford does with mainstream fare the next time he decides to direct.
For an excellent add'l read on this topic, please visit my friend Deb over at Dumbwit Tellher. Tell her we sent you!