Financed, written and directed by fashion designer and former Gucci guru Tom Ford, A Single Man is an adaptation of the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. Set in the early 1960s in post Cuban missile-crisis California, it charts a day in the life of gay middle-aged professor George Falconer (played by a sombre Colin Firth), as he considers ending it all after facing eight months of misery due to the death of his partner Jim.
I know from the snobbish twittering of critics and Isherwood fans alike that there was much concern over a potential paucity of quality dialogue, and many suggested Ford would inevitably favour style over substance. Nevertheless, after seeing the finished product I am pleased to say it is more than worthy of its panoply of plaudits (which already include two Oscar nominations). Ford has thankfully been faithful to the bulk of Isherwood’s story, transferring his languorous prose to the big screen with an effortless grace.
With Ford being atavistically fashion conscious, it was perhaps inevitable that his ostentatious influence would engulf the design, and so it does to great effect, though not letting it degenerate into a glossy self-aggrandizing vanity film. Having used the same production designers as the AMC drama series Mad Men it has a classic practical aesthetic with a warm golden glow and is historically accurate down to the very last detail. That said, as gorgeous as the production is, it certainly does not eclipse the seriousness of the plot. The camera work is superb in capturing the emotions of George and the other characters in subtle and understated ways, evoking some of the great melodramas of early sixties European cinema. The pristine evanescence is further enhanced by the haunting music of Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi, which perfectly amplifies the transitioning of emotions.
Set over the course of just one day but peppered with flashbacks of George’s life with Jim, the films exploration of how a gay man must mourn his lost love within a society hostile to the possibility of romantic love between two men is brought to life magnificently by Colin Firth. In George we see a fastidiously neat individual and sartorially plain individual, stereotypically English persona, very reticent and quite the fish out of water amongst the vast ocean of Californian consumerists. Unlike most in California, George is an introvert who observes the everyday intricacies of the world around him, absorbing the lives of others as he contemplates his own demise.
A Single Man lays bare that most emotionally-paralysing element of the human condition: grief. Firth manages, with deep conviction, to portray George’s pain so that we the audience are able to understand how this great loss has left him teetering on the edge, ready to dive into oblivion. Through other characters we are also able to see the pain of loss from different perspectives, and none more so than in George’s friend and one-time lover Charley (Julianne Moore), who pines over the loss of George as a lover, failing to understand that he would never have been able to love any woman; unlike George, however, Charley clings on to a sense of optimism.
Some minor faults aside, for a first-time screenwriter and director Tom Ford has excelled himself, for A Single Man emanates not only charm and beauty but also great poignancy. This is a deeply moving narrative drawn with arresting sophistication.