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Review: A Single Man

By  · Published on December 25th, 2009

The feature filmmaking debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, A Single Man often resembles a magazine photo spread sprung to life. A collection of meticulously composed, starkly colored images ranging from washed out grays to over saturated reds and oranges, it’s pretty to look at but consistently rather inert. Ford knows how to bring alive the sumptuous spectacle of the human body on film – the contours of a face, the shape of an eyelash, the bulging muscles of a smooth skinned leg – and the chic big-haired, tight sweater, horn-rimmed glasses ’60s look. He’s much less adept at telling a story.

Colin Firth stars as George, an English professor living in Los Angeles and barely surviving. A tragic accident has robbed him of Jim (Matthew Goode), the love of his life, and the most basic daily activities have become impossible obstacles. Ford’s tone poem looks at George as tries to find some measure of happiness when he goes to work, interacts with his peers and his neighbors and searches for a way to at least momentarily forget the overwhelming pain that’s become a constant.

With its shifting styles, integrated flashbacks and arty psychological digressions, the picture roots itself in its protagonist’s subconscious. Firth plays a characteristically stiff upper-lipped type, but there’s more depth and sadness to George than Mr. Darcy and the other prim and proper characters with which he’s made his name. Among the picture’s prominent images is that of George’s writhing, naked body drowning. The primary achievement of Firth’s work, rife with a somber, pensive demeanor born out of untold sadness, is the nimbleness with which he drives Ford’s metaphor home.

Yet he’s stranded in a movie that rejects a cohesive narrative for a series of overdesigned moving snapshots strung together in collage form. It’s a spruced up ode to unhappiness that remains rooted to the surface, an aesthete’s dream. Ford lingers on close-ups of faces and objects. At other moments his camera dances through slow pans and pulls back to frame the characters against vast, overpowering background images. One could devote pages to parsing the hyper literate eloquence on display, to finding meaning in the various symbols and signifiers, to looking at the picture’s place in the storied history of New Queer Cinema. Someday, somewhere, an academic will surely get a nice think piece out of it.

Yet, no matter the ease with which the filmmaker draws out the complex, painterly beauty in each frame, A Single Man remains perilously earthbound. Like so many movies that seemed tailor made for academia, Ford’s forgets to be entertaining. In aiming to be intellectually appreciated it never demands visceral, emotional involvement. While Todd Haynes, who similarly employs elaborate film studies bating techniques, understands the fundamentals of storytelling, Ford shows himself to be ill-equipped to take George on the well-rounded journey he requires.

The nature of the screenplay, which unfolds over the course of one day, hampers things, but the visually oriented approach calls such attention to itself that the picture feels more like a museum piece than a living, breathing depiction of a troubling period in an individual’s life. The filmmaker’s so driven to externalize George’s internal storm that its darkest details are spelled out for us, unfolding in stagy widescreen splendor. Though Firth tries to keep things grounded, he’s overcome by the spectacle. Rarely has depression seemed so ravishing.

The Upside: Colin Firth gives one of his best performances, emanating sadness. The movie’s awfully pretty to look at.

The Downside: The narrative grinds to a halt pretty early on and stays lodged there, as but a figurehead for Ford’s elaborate visual compositions.

On the Side: Colin Firth has earned a lot of Oscar buzz for his work, and he’ll certainly be nominated. Our money, as stated in a previous post, is on Jeff Bridges.

Grade: C+