A Single Man, Tom Ford’s directorial debut, has been called indulgent and over-directed. It’s inspired bon mots about shared traits with a runway model—gorgeous but vapid. These qualifiers amuse me, but I can’t dismiss Ford’s tale of a grieving English prof in 1962 Los Angeles that easily. Too many years in the fashion biz may have trained Ford to privilege the surface of things, but his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel—a vanity project funded out of Ford’s own natty pocket—is unexpectedly touching, especially in light of his brash narcissist persona. Ford’s contempt for squares beats under the gleaming skin of A Single Man, but contempt has its place within the limits of the narrative, and it’s certainly germane to our larger world, which makes social existence hellish for nonconformists—for minorities, as the hero calls them during a diatribe about fear and persecution before a rapt English class.
The movie is self-consciously stylized (we sense Ford’s anxiety that costume and architectural line might fall behind the moment) but it generates enough emotion and meaning to get by. Much of that substance is brought to the screen by its leading man, Colin Firth, who’s hooking nominations for the work he does carrying this project. When his face wobbles with doughy grief upon waking from a dream of his dead partner, we concede that Ford is in tune with his material and with his hero’s emotional space; his camera lingers for an appropriate dot of time, close enough to the man’s face to show pain’s play, but far enough to maintain an impersonal distance suggestive of the hero’s isolation.
Style, anyway, is part of the film’s key. Even if I disagreed with Ford’s quip about North Americans’ fear of aggressive style in fashion and art (which I can’t), I’d still defend his visual choices—every Alice-in-Wonderland cue and slo-mo glide. Whether Ford pulled his dreamlike cast from Isherwood’s source (which I haven’t read) or imposed it on the tale himself, that dreaminess has purpose. This is life seen through the eyes of Firth’s character, George Falconer, and its dreaminess speaks of his detachment from the supposed real world. Falconer’s LA is a zone in which his sixteen-year relationship with Jim (Matthew Goode) is considered “not real” even by his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore). It’s a stage for a daily performance of straightness in nearly every dimension of his life (“It takes time in the morning to become George,” we’re told in voice-over as Falconer dresses for a day’s work). And it’s a realm bleared by the prism of grief, thrown out of whack by Jim’s sudden death, made slow and swampy and diffuse. The story supplies Ford with not one but three excuses for the fantastic skew he gives his mise-en-scène; his style isn’t as indulgent as it may at first come off. The faces of women, frequently, are shot head-on through a blowsy square frame—suggesting the claustrophobia of imposition, expectation—while those of men are captured from more natural (and flattering) angles. Men’s bodies are fetishized appropriately, glimpsed through the canted aperture of Falconer’s transgressive stare. Ford’s form reflects function better than that of many first-time directors—and like many, he’s unabashedly in love with his frame (and his furniture and textiles and makeup), but it’s not such a reckless passion, after all.
Ford has dismissed the notion that A Single Man is a queer film, but the result proves he was being disingenuous (and the Isherwood source also begs otherwise). Queerness is hardly incidental to this story—it provides the film’s conflict and wedges its hero into a helpless crouch. Queerness is rendered as justifiably beautiful, and the queer state of being—especially in 1960s America—is one of justified rage. Jim’s death crystallizes Falconer’s social isolation, some of it self-imposed, much of it the result of exclusion. He’s barred from his partner’s funeral and condemned to grieve without expression, save in the company of Charley, a one-time lover who lingers with the hope of rekindling their old romance. If the hausfrau next door (a perfectly cast and coiffed Ginnifer Goodwin) embodies indifferent etiquette, her husband (Teddy Sears) pulses with homophobic menace in his brief appearances; this is the social orbit Falconer is condemned to cycle through with Sisyphean regularity.
The George/Jim relationship is presented to us in flashback as Falconer prepares to kill himself with all the rigor of a gentleman. He puts his affairs in order, writes letters to his handful of intimates, and leaves wardrobe instructions for the funeral director. A Single Man is about the anguish of unacknowledged love and unacknowledged selfhood—unacknowledged, that is, by the larger world, even had they not been hidden away for preservation. That anguish is communicated by the symbolic voids onscreen: stunning but empty concepts homes, awkward silences between Falconer and various citizens, Charley’s meaningless nostalgia for her old London life (Moore presents her as caricature rather than character, and I’m not sure if that’s a result of poor or of very deliberate direction on Ford’s part). A Single Man can leave the viewer with an impression of thinness, but perhaps that’s the point. Or perhaps Ford let his surfaces get away from him.
But a generous reviewer must give him the benefit of the doubt. Ford shows promise, and a filmmaker with a built-in eye for light and line is always welcome. He certainly shows a literary bent, landing on Isherwood’s iconic gay-lib novel. Perhaps the time period was the book’s draw; hipsters have been filling their walk-ups with vintage late-50s/early-60s pieces since the early Aughts, before the trend exploded all over the mainstream with Mad Men. But it would be uncharitable to suggest that look is everything to Ford. Isherwood’s story has meat, even if its symbolism (or is it Ford’s symbolism?) is too broad: an ink/blood correlation, a Band-Aid applied to Falconer’s brow by a redeemer figure (Nicholas Hoult) during the movie’s redemption scene. Ford and his co-writer David Scearce have produced an imperfect screenplay, which dips weakly in spots and tosses out expressive anachronisms that weren’t around in the early 60s. Dialogue is, at times, well-formed and true—other times it’s nearly insipid, delivered insipidly by high-cheekboned beauties with dead eyes. A Single Man is both fantasy and airless reality, a fascinating bundle presented on a Russel Wright silver tray. It’s a film that packages its style as a lesson to the frumps among us—a cinematic panacea dedicated to us by Ford. “Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty,” a character points out in the film (as if Ford, second-guessing himself, opted to preempt his critics) but A Single Man is far from awful. It only flirts with its edge. Firth and a rich atmosphere and a punch of genuine feeling support Ford’s vanity endeavour and prevent it from being a stylish stinker. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, on January 19, 2009.)