A Single Man (2009)

18 Aug

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore are so, so stylish. And sad, too. But always stylish.

“Style over substance” is a neat, nearly meaningless statement used to detract from artistic achievement when it also happens to be somehow aesthetically outre. “A Single Man,” helmed as it was by Tom Ford, was simply begging for this hollow phrase to be tossed about. Instead, by the end of the movie, I was thinking perhaps in this case, style IS the substance.

The film follows one day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British ex-pat teaching English at a southern California college. Falconer has recently lost his long-time lover, Jim, and risks becoming overwhelmed with grief. When first we meet Falconer, it is through a detached, sterile voice-over. His world is a muted one, with ashy color palettes and an interminable stretching of time. Falconer’s few pleasures come from small, seemingly trifling interactions: He tells a student worker in his office that she is beautiful and she has a lovely smile; a pupil in one of his courses asks an astute question; he meets a young woman with a dog of the same breed he used to own; the neighbor children find coins in the yard.

We meet people who are still important to Falconer. His friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) is perhaps his only remaining link both to Jim and his past. The pair attempted an intimate relationship in their youth, which George abandoned. “It always meant more to her,” he says. Kenny Porter (Nicholas Hoult) is a troubled student of Falconer’s, confiding in his professor, seeming to want more than a teacher-student relationship. Falconer’s life with Jim is shown in brief, unremarkable flashbacks, seeming to undermine Falconer’s own despair at his loss.

And yet, there is the lovely bit about this film — Life is lived in its little moments as much as its big ones, and that much is clear in Falconer’s face as he remembers his past. Firth’s bold, unwavering portrayal of a man ravaged by grief but unable to articulate that emotion is stunning in its completeness and its utter sincerity. It is a heartbreaking performance which ultimately serves to portray a concept not often seen in film — the notion of the great love not written in the stars, but in the thousands of shared laughs, quick kisses and quiet evenings that make up a lifetime. All that can be seen in the fine details of Firth’s face as he struggles with how to speak about Jim, how to choose the right words, how to navigate society. He is wonderful.

Colin Firth conveys subtle emotion; in lesser hands this role could easily have slipped into sloppy melodrama.

Yet the film itself is not without its faults. The supporting roles, Moore’s Charlotte notwithstanding, are weak. It is a stretch to believe Falconer would be interested at all beyond simple attraction to the flat Porter with his unconvincing speeches about Aldous Huxley and feeling like a loner. Some of Falconer’s other interactions verge on surreal and begin to undermine the real emotion the viewer feels for the grieving professor.

Ford’s styling of the film is impeccable, perhaps too much so. The Eames-ish world Falconer inhabits is so letter-perfect as to be distracting at times. I particularly found Ford’s use of enhanced color heavy-handed. Falconer inhabits a world of drab, ashy earthtones most of the time, but when anything grabs his attention or distracts him, it blazes with bright, warm color. With a lesser actor, it might be necessary to signal to the audience what’s happening in a character’s head, but with Firth holding the reins this tactic is overkill.

Even with those complaints, I return to my initial hypothesis: Style is the substance. Without Ford’s clear attention to detail beyond set dressing, I’m not sure the film would have as much impact as it does. Everything from pacing to interplay of shadows, when and where voice-overs are used, when shots are lengthy and when they are quick-cut — all of this feels meticulously planned to serve a very specific purpose: To separate us from George Falconer at first, and then to draw us into him, to make us understand how very, very alone Falconer truly is. Three stars out of four.

A Single Man: Rated R. Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode and Jon Kortajarena. Directed by Tom Ford. Written by Tom Ford and David Scearce from the novel by Christopher Isherwood. Cinematography by Eduard Grau. Original music by Abel Korzeniowski.

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