Wednesday, July 21, 2010
A SOMBER, GORGEOUS ENCOUNTER WITH GRIEF IN 1962 L.A.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged British ex-patriot teaching at a university in sunny Southern California in 1962. A closeted homosexual by cultural necessity, he's possessed of monumental outward conformity. Inside, however, beats the heart of a true romantic.
George is the sort of fellow who keeps his tastefully decorated moderne home spotless and his reputation even more so. "It takes time in the morning for me to become George," he explains in the first of two voiceovers that bookend the film. "By the time I've dressed and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George, I know fully what part I'm supposed to play."
On the face of it, the immaculately groomed and exceedingly dry George is preparing for yet another day in the classroom – that's his "part" in the quotidian SoCal community in which he resides. But beneath that mask of staid conventionality lies the real George, a heartsick shell of a man who has found himself caught in the riptides of grief following the accidental death of his longtime companion Jim (Matthew Goode). George has decided to end it all, but it's still only 7am and there's one last day of life for George Falconer to get through.
Adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is an exquisite and haunting feature debut from the Austin-born fashion designer/icon Tom Ford. It's a melancholy meditation on love and death and hidden lives, and Ford brings everything he has to the film, not least of which is his picture-perfect designer's eye for detail, composition, and the infinite subtleties of narrative shading. (Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the film reflect George's mindset; Los Angeles has rarely looked so desaturated yet so inviting.)
A Single Man is, ultimately, Firth's tour de force. He slips into the raw role of George Falconer with exactly as much precision as George brings to becoming Professor Falconer (straight, no chaser), and the masks both actor and character share are uncommonly seamless. Likewise Julianne Moore, who shows up as Charley, George's Tanqueray-drowning ex-lover, closest friend, and only confidante. Their scenes together – they get trashed and dance around her place, then fall to the white shag, panting, smoking, and blearily confessing to each other like a pair of well-heeled high school kids – have the clear-eyed sheen of those left behind, booze or no booze.
When, late in the last night of his life, George runs into one of his students, the impetuous and alluring Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, best remembered looking considerably younger in About a Boy) both Firth and Ford seize on George's equally fervid and presumably final grab at life and love (of a sort), and the sequence, which ends up in the inky midnight of the Pacific Ocean, has a magical grace to it. Few directors, much less big-screen neophytes, have conjured the ability to distill the human byproducts of love and death with such ethereal, elegiac style as Ford does here. Fittingly, Alfred Hitchcock, who did just that while driving Jimmy Stewart to madness over Kim Novak in Vertigo, is referenced all over the place, from Abel Korzeniowski's Bernard Herrmann-esque score to an instant-classic shot that imposes Firth against a massive, piercingly blue image of Janet Leigh's eyes on an outdoor advert for Psycho.
A Single Man is an absurdly ravishing piece of filmmaking. It's not simply that Ford has a ravening and righteous eye for cinematic composition and detail (you'd expect that from the Gucci resurrectionist and onetime guest editor of Vanity Fair); it's that everything fits perfectly, from titles to fin, but most of all Firth, who dons the role of George like a fine bespoke suit. Which, Ford being Ford, it surely was.
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