The face of grief that the actor Colin Firth wears in “A Single Man” is crumpled and gray. There is little movement in the face initially: it’s a beautiful and gently furrowed mask, not yet old, despite the small brushstrokes of white at the temples. You might think that gravity alone was tugging at its mouth. But George, the middle-aged professor and single man of the title whom Mr. Firth plays with a magnificent depth of feeling, has had his heart broken, and the pieces are still falling.
The film, directed by Tom Ford, follows the outlines of the landmark 1964 novel of the same title by Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), the openly gay British-born author whose story “Sally Bowles” was turned first into the play “I Am a Camera” and later the musical and movie “Cabaret.” An intensely, at times uncomfortably, intimate work of fiction, “A Single Man” condenses George’s story — much of his very life — into one emotion- and event-charged day. What makes the day special, and the book too, is George’s existential condition. George is single. And he is a man. But he is also a homosexual, which helps set him and his lusting, fading body apart from almost everyone in his life.
But other things distinguish George, including his profound grief over the death of his longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), seen in intermittent flashback. The film opens with an image of George slowly sinking naked in water, a vision suggestive of rebirth and fatal submersion. This is immediately followed by a starkly different image of him slowly entering, as if in a trance, a disquieting tableau in which Jim and a terrier lie dead in a snowy field next to a wrecked automobile and a large, vivid blot of blood. Carefully, George lowers himself next to his dead lover and tenderly kisses his mouth, a gesture that seems to cause George — who had actually been sleeping and presumably dreaming — to wake in his bed.
Numbness follows, as do routine, work, sorrow and perhaps another kind of awakening. Set in 1962 — news of the Cuban missile crisis crackles through the air — the film tracks George from the brutal loneliness of his morning through his day and transformative night. Along the way, he passes in and out of the Los Angeles area college where he teaches Huxley to bored students who stare at him with curiosity when the subject turns to invisible minorities and fear. He crosses paths and wits with a flirty student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), and a charming hustler, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), while also making time for his close friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), a British expat like George. At one point, he buys some bullets.
It’s axiomatic, at least for Chekhov and a lot of Hollywood directors that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third. Mr. Ford, who shares screenwriting credit with David Scearce, introduces a gun largely because the novel has so little obvious dramatic tension. The gun is a matter of narrative convenience that sometimes works, if sometimes not, with the bits Mr. Ford borrows from Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai. Mr. Ford, for instance, partly frames George’s encounter with the hustler in front of a billboard for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” featuring a wild-eyed Janet Leigh, an image that recalls a similar shot in Mr. Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother” and invokes the unsettlingly sexual menace of “Psycho.”
Bringing Hitchcock and Mr. Almodóvar into the picture is risky because it creates a ridiculously lofty level of expectation. O.K., show me, you think. (It also intimates that the director and the audience belong to the same cine club, which can seem like a form of pandering.) But Mr. Ford, one of the most famous names in fashion and in luxury branding — he was the longtime creative director of Gucci — has taken an enormous chance just by taking on “A Single Man,” a foundational text in modern gay literature. The novelist Edmund White, for one, called the book “the first truly liberated gay novel in English.” That kind of legacy would have intimidated a lot of inexperienced directors, but Mr. Ford betrays few signs of intimidation.
Mr. Firth’s delicately shaded performance no doubt helped steady Mr. Ford’s nerves. Certainly, the director knows how to exploit his actor’s reserve to terrific effect, as when he sets the camera in front of Mr. Firth’s face in one critical scene and just lets the machine record the tremors of emotion cracking the facade. It’s hard to know if Mr. Ford’s most flamboyant visual flourish, the use of a changeable palette to show shifts in George’s mood — the character’s normally gray face floods with color in the presence of another life force, like Kenny — was born out of a filmmaking conceit or a lack of confidence. Whatever the case, while the color changes are initially distracting, Mr. Firth’s performance soon makes you forget them.
Mr. Ford has excellent taste in lead actors — Mr. Goode and Ms. Moore are very fine — and in cinematic influences. But he hasn’t fully learned how to work inside the moving image plane, a space in which people and objects must be dynamically engaged rather than prettily arranged, as they occasionally are here. And at times his taste seems too impeccable, art-directed for a maximum sale, as in a black-and-white flashback that brings to mind a perfume advertisement. In a film by Mr. Wong, whose influence is evident in the visuals and on the elegiac score, a luxuriant bloom, a curlicue of smoke and the curve of a lover’s back express what the characters themselves cannot, rather than the filmmaker’s own personal style. The composer Shigeru Umebayashi has written music for several of Mr. Wong’s films and contributed to this one.
That Mr. Ford has placed so much weight on Mr. Firth suggests that he knows how valuable his actor is to his first effort. And while “A Single Man” has its flaws, many of these fade in view of the performance and the power of Isherwood’s story. Part of the radical importance of Isherwood’s novel is its insistence on the absolute ordinariness of George’s life, including with Jim, whose relationship together is pictured only briefly in both the novel and the film, and yet reverberates deeply (then as now). Mr. Ford’s single man might be less common than Isherwood’s, a bit too exquisitely dressed. But with Mr. Firth, Mr. Ford has created a gay man troubled by ordinary grief and haunted by joy, a man apart and yet like any other.
“A Single Man” is rated R. (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.) The film features a lot of smoking and drinking, the usual adult expletives and one startling urination fantasy.
A SINGLE MAN
Opens on Friday in Manhattan. Directed by Tom Ford; written by Mr. Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood; director of photography, Eduard Grau; edited by Joan Sobel; music by Abel Korzeniowski; additional music by Shigeru Umebayashi; production designer, Dan Bishop; produced by Mr. Ford, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano and Robert Salerno; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is rated R.
By Scott Foundas
Too much is never enough for fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, whose debut feature flaunts its capital-A Artiness the way some Napoleonic gym rats flaunt their overdeveloped musculature. Unlike his fellow art-house Michael Bays—Julie Taymor, Julian Schnabel, and Baz Luhrmann—Ford doesn't whip his camera into dizzying blurs, chop his scenes into abstract fricassées, or subject us to elaborate acid-flashback fantasy sequences; he does, however, share their affection for art direction over actual direction, and for extravagant surfaces over the lower depths of meaning and emotion. Based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, Ford's A Single Man is nothing if not a master class in sartorial excellence ("Wardrobe for Colin Firth Provided by Tom Ford Menswear" state the credits), freshly exfoliated skin, and modern Southern California architecture. Not a hair or a shaft of light appears out of its careful place. Think of it as Vogue Hommes: The Movie.
Ford, who also co-wrote the screenplay, hews fairly close to the events of Isherwood's slender, elegant novel—one of his best—which encompasses a day in the life of George Falconer (played in the movie by Firth), a British ex-pat teaching English at a small Los Angeles college around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, when the story begins, mourning the recent death of his longtime lover and companion, Jim. Over the course of George's day, he endures the casual homophobia of his smiling suburban neighbors, lectures on Aldous Huxley to a classroom of complacent, disinterested students, and drops in for dinner with his big-haired, gin-swilling divorcée confidante (Julianne Moore), all the while pondering his station in life and what—if anything—our brief time on this earth really means. Eventually, the prof ends up drowning his sorrows at a local watering hole, where he happens upon his fair-haired, flirtatious student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who challenges him to a late-night skinny dip in the Pacific and subsequently follows him home, perhaps not just to towel off.
Ford, who discovered Isherwood's novel when he was in his early 20s, has said he was "moved by the honesty and simplicity of the story." Simplicity, however, is not his strong suit on the big screen any more than it was on the fashion runway (where, after one 2000 show, the London Independent credited him with "adding the porn-star look to Milan's increasingly flamboyant portfolio"). Gussied up with enough stylistic fireworks for several Fourth of July parades, A Single Man lets you know what you're in for early on, with a tedious opening-credits sequence set over a nude Firth writhing about in a bottomless sea (a ploddingly literal interpretation of a metaphor from the novel's final pages), followed by an equally protracted montage of George going through his daily grooming rituals—a practical primer in how to be Mr. Ford, minus the impeccably cultivated five o'clock shadow.
No more than 10 minutes in, the movie already has the feel of an exquisitely preserved corpse laid out for viewing, which may be partly intentional given that the director has also decided to amplify Isherwood's melancholic tone by turning George from a mild depressive into a full-blown suicide case. But his greatest concession to Style (and to sheer folly) comes in the form of the desaturated color palate he concocts together with his cinematographer, Eduard Grau—a funereal succession of blacks, grays, and browns that periodically erupts into full-blown Technicolor whenever George feels a flush of passion and an accompanying rush of blood to his lower extremities. One can think of any number of actual porn films with a less obvious touch and more genuine feeling.
Along the way, Ford doffs his hat to such fellow cine-maximalists as Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai (whose In the Mood For Love composer, Shigeru Umebayashi, shares credit for the movie's thunderous, pseudo–Philip Glass score), and Alfred Hitchcock (a building-size Psycho poster looming like a sentry over George's brief encounter with a Spanish hustler in a liquor-store parking lot), which only serves to underscore those filmmakers' innate ability to transfigure style into content, artifice into art. Whereas Todd Haynes, a semiotician by training, used the carefully manicured 1950s hedgerows of Far From Heaven—another obvious influence—as a window in to the era's pervasive psychosexual repression, A Single Man, with one significant exception, gives us only a series of immaculate poses.
The exception is Firth, who, in spite of Ford's best efforts to turn him, too, into another piece of movable scenery, manages to convey a real human soul stirring beneath George's petrified façade—the sense of a vulnerable man, fundamentally uncomfortable in his own skin, who has lost the only person who ever allowed him to lose sight of himself. His performance is an island of honesty and simplicity, swallowed up by a sea of excess.
By Stephanie Zacharek
All movies are art-directed to one degree or another. But "A Single Man," un film de Tom Ford, is all art and no direction -- it's a picture made up of visual choices with almost no filmmaking sandwiched between. Set in California in 1962, the picture -- based, very loosely, on Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name -- opens with an ending of sorts: College professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) tries to come to terms with the death of his lover of 16 years, Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode). George, a British expat, is a reserved sort who favors Michael Caine glasses and narrow, dark suits. He's not given to florid displays of emotion or even to nurturing close friendships: His dearest friend is Charley (Julianne Moore), a needy, boozy, melodramatic divorcee with whom, in his youth, he had a brief sexual relationship. George still adores Charley, though perhaps not quite as much as she adores him (she hints at one point that she still wishes they could "work" as a couple). And though she at least pretends she wants to help him, she exists far outside his suffering: He's lost to everyone, drifting along in a world that has been grayed out -- quite literally, in Ford's vision -- by his grief.
There may be hope for George, in the form of a sensitive student in a fuzzy Ed Wood sweater that screams "Touch me!" (played by Nicholas Hoult, the now rather grown-up actor who, as a kid, appeared in "About a Boy"). And throughout the movie there are small crumbs of evidence, scattered here and there, that Ford really is trying to use visuals to connect with some real emotion in the story. But aside from what some of the actors bring to it, "A Single Man" is less a finished, fleshed-out movie than it is a mood board, one of those collages of images and colors that designers sometimes use to help define and fine-tune the vibe they're going after in their creative ventures. There's also an unflattering, simpering self-pity at the heart of it, a quality that isn't present in Isherwood's book. Ford, who adapted the screenplay (working from an earlier treatment by David Scearce), has invented certain plot elements wholesale and twisted others beyond recognizability. It's not enough for George's character to be quietly devastated; he has to be suicidal as well, because Ford can't resist that extra flourish of dramatic icing.
Ford is a designer at heart, best known for the collections he put together for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and his clothes were often elegant and refined. But that fine-grained sensibility hasn't carried over into his filmmaking. Everything about the look and feel of "A Single Man" is mannered, and nearly every image looks to have been borrowed from somewhere else: a Vogue fashion spread circa 1963 here, a late-'80s Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein ad there. Filmmakers borrow all the time; there's nothing wrong with it. But Ford's borrowings are both canny and canned: There's an aggressive artificiality about them that makes them feel smug and arty -- they exist for their own vanity, not to serve the story. When George drives to a liquor store, he parks his car in front of a giant billboard of Janet Leigh in "Psycho" -- except the billboard is at ground level, not elevated as billboards usually are, and it's clear that the plan is for George to pull up right between Leigh's terrified eyes. Why? Because it looks cool. At another point, George lays out sets of keys, cuff links, envelopes, a suit that has quite obviously been freshly pressed, as if he were setting up a catalog shoot. It's not George's sense of order that's at odds with the story -- he's clearly an orderly guy. But at this point in the narrative, his character is burrowed deep in pain, and the finicky, fussed-over quality of the images, as Ford presents them to us, is an affront. Ford (with the help of his cinematographer Eduard Grau) wants everything to look just right, but he's not using images to get at the interior life of a character; he's setting a banquet table, moving each fork one-quarter of an inch, rotating every plate a smidge counterclockwise, readjusting the folds of each napkin so the points fall just so.
The result is a static, lifeless picture with a bad case of montage-itis. Again and again and again, in the moments when George briefly emerges from his funk, his gray world gradually shifts toward highly saturated color: A woman's pillowy lips go from a flat, dull pink to poppy-colored; a handsome lad's sallow cheek acquires a lively flush. But Ford is so entranced with his own images he can't see beyond them. And he repeats motifs to the point of exhaustion: He never met a curlicue of eyeliner he didn't like.
If only he liked people as much. Moore, one of the most gifted actresses working today, is made to look blowsy and faded, and there are traces of cruelty -- unintentional, I hope -- in the way Ford and Grau fixate on her wide-open, laughing mouth. Moore's performance is uncharacteristically forced and mechanical -- this is a very rare instance in which she looks uncomfortable not just in her character, but within her own skin. Goode and Hoult are charming enough, and they're certainly beautiful to look at. But they never seem fully relaxed; it's as if they've intuited that they're just pretty pawns in a grand scheme.
But the most frustrating thing about "A Single Man" is that it isn't wholly dismissible, a glossy trifle we can wave off as easily as Moore's Charley might stub out one of her fuchsia-colored cigarettes. Firth's performance -- which won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival -- is one of the finest of the year, a wondrous surprise at the heart of this otherwise preening, shallow movie. In an early scene, when George receives the news of his lover's death over the phone, he's told that the memorial service is for "family only." I don't recall seeing even the tiniest shift in Firth's facial expression. Yet it's as if George's world had suddenly moved, by inches or millions of miles, that much further away from the sun.
It doesn't matter if the movie around Firth is a good one or a lousy one: Either way, I wouldn't be able to explain how an actor could come up with a performance as subtle, in both its heartbreak and its magnificence, as this one is. What Firth offers here is a surprise miracle of moviegoing, one of those loaves-into-fishes moments you can never see coming. It's also a reminder that while the actor's craft demands discipline and preparation, the best result he or she -- or we -- can hope for is the one that's unplanned. In the midst of Ford's austere aesthetic fussing and arranging, Firth is lovely every minute. And it's so much harder to be lovely than it is to be beautiful.