A Single Man (2009)

Info SidebarHigh Fashion commercials have a specific gloss about them. The men and women who drape themselves over beaches and rocks and glare intensely at each other seem to live in a world detached from the realistic confines of our everyday existence. They look as pretty as models do, and we are sure that their skin has been washed over with baby oil and buffed till they can be buffed no more. As Emma Stone shrewdly observes to a topless Ryan Gosling: “It’s like you’re Photoshopped!”

A Single Man, directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, looks like one massive commercial for Gucci. The lighting is controlled and reflective. There are a lot of topless and naked men. Their movements are sluggish. At times it is flat, and then others it is deep and robust. Its characters, too, peer into each other’s eyes as if trying to determine a brand of perfume (indeed, the Colin Firth character determines the brand on one of his attractive co-workers). And of course, its wardrobe appears to be pulled right out of Gucci’s retro collection and fitted closely to actors who glisten with it on.

Firth plays George Falconer, an English professor in Los Angeles with a secret dark and taboo for 1962. He has lost his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), to a dreadful car crash, and now spends his days wandering through his designer house pretending it is a mausoleum. He enters his usual morning routine and comes out looking like a million bucks — “I know exactly who I am supposed to be”. His car is expensive. His job, though tedious, is not without its rewards.

His closest friend is Charley (Julianne Moore, delicately effective), a woman of exaggerated and vacant beauty. She and George grew up together in London, had a fling, and then realised that homo and hetero do not mix. They share a heartbreaking friendship; you can see their loneliness in their eyes, and yet neither would admit to it. They share an evening together. There’s gin and dinner and lovely music. They dance and reminisce. And then they wonder what could have been. They are two lonely souls drifting in a foreign land. This is their curse.

Firth is extraordinary as George. He is an actor who shields his emotions with his eyes. Not for a second can you tell what George is really thinking or feeling; his words point in one direction but his eyes glance in another. Consider the scene in the bar where he has a drink with one of his more curious students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). Both men know what’s on the table — a romantic night together or a really bad grade for finals — but Kenny is forward and predictable. George is enigmatic. He plays along, but maybe his mind is wishing Kenny would leave. It is like a mental chess match between seasoned veterans. They know how to play the game, but they bring different tactics to the arena.

There’s a twist to all this: George wants to kill himself. His life without Jim holds no more meaning for him. The whole of A Single Man takes place over the course of 24 hours; from morning to night, George keeps his revolver close. There is a mordant sequence where George tests different suicide positions. He is adamant that his time must come. Having witnessed his day, I’m not so sure I can sympathise with him, but then I have not experienced a love like his, in a time like that.

Many things that happen during these 24 hours are a little too coincidental for my taste. I have lived 25 years and have come across maybe 15 (20?) gay men. George’s one day consists of two, maybe more. By my calculations, that’s 18,250 gay men per day for 25 years, provided he keeps his consistency. Many of these encounters exist for George to see the good in life, but it just so happens he’s gay, and the men around him are also gay. The idea behind the method is there, but the execution leaves room for questions.

The story is based on the novel of the same name, by Christopher Isherwood, and I can see it lingering in viewers’ minds like an unsolvable mental puzzle. The performances are rock solid. The tragedy that befalls George is emotionally gruesome, but we cannot reach him to help him. Ford has crafted a designed movie, not a natural one. But then George’s life has also been designed, first by society, then by himself. Sure, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, but with clothes this chic and a package so refined, it’s easy to look past the flaws and realise, as George does, that “Death must come. It’s the one thing we all have in common”.


Best Moment | George’s and Charley’s night together.

Worst Moment | Kenny’s blatantly forward approaches.

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