A Single Man is unmistakably an art house film but in the best sense of the term. It’s intimate, outside the mainstream, relies more on cinematography, music, and editing rather than dialogue to tell the story, and highlights actors, or in this case, an actor, who can completely embody a character and keep you mesmerized with a small, subtle performance. It may be an art house film but A Single Man is an experience that will completely entrance you no matter the venue.
Set in 1962 Los Angeles, director Tom Ford’s A Single Man centers on a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a gay man working as an English professor whose world is cold and empty ever since boyfriend Joe (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident eight months ago. George isn’t sleepwalking through life as much as life has become lifeless without love. He inhabits a world drained of all its color. And yet, in the most simple moments and memories, the world becomes lush and vivid. He sees beauty when he looks into the eyes of Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a closeted gay student who has a crush on the professor, color re-enters his world. At the bank, he sees it in his neighbor’s daughter, a young girl in a pretty dress and a picture of innocence. He drifts into a memory of playfully bickering with Joe on the couch about who would have to get up and change the album on the record player. Moments like these are few and far between and George knows that they’ll never be enough to sustain him through his endless grief.
Ford, best known for his work not as a director but as a fashion designer, makes a striking feature film debut and chooses to show his story rather than tell it. I love catchy dialogue but a talented director can convey so much more without it (the opening sequence of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of my all-time favorite movie moments). Eduard Grau’s cinematography isn’t subtle but that doesn’t mean it’s not gorgeous or effective. Not only does he bring to life the rare moments of happiness for George, but he nails the emptiness of George’s life without resorting to the dreaded Blue Filter, which is usually a crutch to convey coldness and/or isolation. Instead, Grau just removes all colors from the scene, frames the emptiness in right angels, and puts George behind parallel lines to convey his emotional confinement. Again, not subtle but highly effective. Combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful score (which reminded me at times of Clint Mansell’s score for The Fountain, which is another all-time favorite) and Joan Sobel’s masterful editing, A Single Man hardly needs words.
Using his technical artistry to bring George’s world in stark relief, the film requires a perfectly subtle performance to ground the piece or else all the effort Ford puts into his sound and visuals becomes unnecessary since the actor is already out front conveying all that emotion. But it is Ford’s good fortune and ours that Colin Firth gives the best performance of his career. Known best for being Bridget Jones’ pudgy true love, Firth’s performance is so sad and so restrained that he can convey the weight and the pain of Falconer’s grief with nothing but a far away stare or the faintest facial expression. But when Falconer looks into the eyes of another person and finds the beauty and vivacity that escapes his own life, Firth uplifts the character’s soul in a single breath. It was as if Firth knew the score, the cinematography, and measured his performance accordingly except it’s the other way around. Those supporting elements, as magnificent as they are, could not succeed without Firth.
Due to its meticulous balance of performance, lighting, score, and pacing, A Single Man never loses its way, even when it does. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where George enjoys dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore), a lifelong friend and a woman who loves him even though she knows he can never reciprocate that love in the way she wants. Their scene together is unlike the rest of the film and it exists in this odd middle ground where the movie begins to drag. Except, that’s the point of the scene as is the point of every scene: to match George’s emotional state. He loves Charley but not passionately, nor does she awaken any passion within him. It’s a stagnant relationship which isn’t unhealthy but where neither person can give the other what they truly need.
Tom Ford brings together every single major element of cinema and weaves together an emotionally stirring tale which will enrapture you whether you’re in the art house, hen house, out house, dog house, or any other house Tommy Lee Jones may be able to name. A Single Man is many things and they’re all fantastic.
Rating —– A