Dec 7, 2009

On A Single Man

Structured like a cruel, ironic joke, the multitudes of pathos and subtly observed pain contained within fashion designer Tom Ford’s sure handed directorial debut A Single Man is achieved in a mostly quiet, painterly mode. Depicting, in muted passages of drab colors and firm compositions spiked with lyrical flourishes of saturation and memory, the last day in the life of a gay English college professor, one overcome with sorrow following his younger partner’s untimely death, the film doesn’t trade in easy sentimentality but effectively opens up a rather potent range of emotions and deft ideological observances. It tugged at the heart strings of Toronto audiences just enough for the Weinsteins to gamble (very little) that it has Oscar horsepower. Without a doubt, it does contain an award worthy performance at its core, but unlike so much of what passes for good cinema in this part of the world, it never feels like that’s its reason for being. Directors rarely finance their own movies unless they’ve really got something to say.

Long cast as worrywarts, gentry codgers and fuddy duddies, Colin Firth is an electric current flowing all over this movie, its living, breathing pulse. He’s in nearly frame and his voiceover, beautifully rendered from Isherwood’s book by Ford and co-writer David Scearce, is one of the rare recent examples of literary voiceover being married to a rather conventional narrative film effectively His George is a literature professor, still living in the beautiful modern ranch designed by his dead boyfriend (Matthew Goode), formerly an American sailor he met immediately after the war. Flashbacks sketch their time together, although the narrative engine is fueled by our desire to know if George will kill himself in the film’s present (and our desire for him not too). A grin and bear it type who no longer has the will as the Cuban missile crisis looms and his unrelenting loneliness, he seems bent on beating the Cubans to annihilation, albeit for his decidedly more personal and less political reasons. While a young college student just coming to terms with his own homosexuality (Nicholas Hault) and a Spanish hustler (Jon Kortajarena) offer the prospect of new emotional connections, his only friend, the sassy and pathetic Charlotte (Julianne Moore, overdoing it), a fading British import like himself, divorced, moneyed and soaked in gin and indulgent style, represents a past yielding only to decay and hopelessness.

Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, a book that Edmund White once called “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement”, the story isn’t designed as a blistering critique of heterosexism, but a thorough investigation of a faltering man’s inability to cope with grief and his prospects for a future in the face of it. Without ever becoming overly dour, Ford gets right at the film’s dilemma in the very beginning (a jolting dream introduces us to George, his dead lover, an icy country rode and this film’s handsome and efficient aesthetic), but he takes his time introducing us to George, informing us about what his intentions are, how he grew to become who he is and just what being gay, upwardly mobile and effectively widowed (but without the legitimacy public displays of dignity that society confers on heterosexuals in the same circumstance) in 1962 Los Angeles must have been like. It’s a dynamite job of work by the ribald gay southerner and the stalwart English performer, as odd a couple as a Gucci bag and New Balance sneakers, but if this film is any indication, Mr. Ford has depths of talent and feeling that extend well beyond making bras. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing them with us.