Jan 6 2010

A Single Man

A Single Man poster

Films that are visually stunning tend to be explosion-ridden action vehicles or art house yarns with little content to support its surreal imagery.  A Single Man rises above and beyond expectations due to Tom Ford’s artistic vision and Colin Firth’s complex, emotional performance.

As a very successful fashion designer, there was probably a lot of cynicism towards Tom Ford’s decision to try his hand at directing A Single Man.  Granted, it would look pretty, but, not unlike photo spreads and fashion shows, the actors would be as lithe and well dressed as they were devoid of all human emotion, and the story would be lost behind glitz, glamour and Dolce and Gabgana.  Who would have thought the A Single Man would emerge as one of the fines films of the year?

The plot is simple enough: English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) has struggled with the death of his longtime partner Jim (Mathew Goode) for the last eight months.  Rather than continue going through the motions of a dry and dreary life, George decides to kill himself at the end of the day.  While living out his final day on Earth, George has a few short, yet surprisingly meaningful encounters with his a few of his neighbors, a handsome drifter, and a smitten student (Nicholas Hoult) that fills George with sensations of long-forgotten passions and serenity.

This film does not play out as an uplifting, feel-good-movie; it never looses step as a melancholic tale of real loss and heartbreak with the lightest touch of much needed hope.  Rather than rely on lumbering monologues of self-pity and woe-is-me sentiment, Ford uses grainy film, sound, and the use of color to reflect the world through George’s eyes.

The film opens with a dream, which is shown at various parts of the film, in which George is drowning in the ocean.  Ford takes this sensation and appropriately distorts the sights and sounds of the world around George in a way that perfectly echoes this central idea of emotional water boarding.  The sounds of Los Angeles frequently become muddled, and Abel Koreniowski’s pulsating score overwhelms each of these scenes, signifying George’s self-exile from reality.  The audience, in turn, is given a chance to soak up the most seemingly insignificant details of this world, in which Ford really shows off his visionary talents.

This is not the first time color has been used artistically in a film, but Ford has definitely raised the bar from here on out.  Ford masterfully uses film quality and color to reflect Georges state of mind in a way that is, to put it simply, beautiful.  Whilst dragging his feet through the daily grind, the film is grainy and all the color in the world is washed out, showcasing the world as dreary, dull and devoid of all life as George sees fit.  However, there are moments throughout the film in which George’s long-forgotten passions are reignited, be it from the athletic prowess of a local tennis team, or the simple, yet breathtaking innocence of a child, and the scene suddenly bursts with vibrant color and crystal clarity.  Red, blue, flesh… even brown has never looked so alive, and has never carried such meaning in a film before.

Of course, when creating such a representation of emotion, aesthetics is only half the battle.  The other half lies in an actor who can, not only express these emotions, but embody them in a way that is visible, yet not over-the-top.  Colin Firth accomplishes this perfectly.  As a haughty, British born intellectual, Firth masterfully exudes the dry wit and chronic dissatisfaction expected from any British gentleman in America with honest, poignant heartbreak.  During the opening monologue, George talks about how he has become nothing more than an image or a product, fulfilling his role as a stodgy English professor in an attempt to simple get through the day.  Firth, through use of subtle glances and expressions, portrays his character, not as a superficial visage, but as a desperate man who has given up on everything, while simultaneously yearning to come up for air.

The film boasts an impressive supporting cast that plays a small, yet crucial part in George’s last day.  The most impressive is Julianne Moore, who plays George’s longtime friend Charley, who is, at best, a boozy, haggard beauty whose struggle with age and her own romantic feeling towards George have rendered her a gin-soaked hot mess.  Moore gives one of her best performances since Boogie Nights in this film, capturing, not only the bombastic, alcoholic mistress, but the pitiful creature beneath the posh dresses and layers of eyeliner.  Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, stands as a symbol of lust and passion as a student of George who shows a considerable interest in his professor.  Rather than portray his character has a sexual device, Hoult does a wonderful job bringing depth and youthful curiosity to a character who could have been little more than a figurine.

Beneath a slew of fantastic performances and visual style, A Single Man lightly touches on the politics and fears of America in the early Sixties, in which the country lived under constant fear of a nuclear attack from Russia, as well as the burgeoning awareness in the public consciousness of a homosexual community.  While discussing Aldous Huxley, George delivers a speech about public fear and its chosen minorities as a threat that is profoundly resonant, as it not only covers issues with the Jews in Nazi Germany or the threat of Communists in America directly, but also addresses the fears and animosity against homosexuals, the new hot targets of the twentieth century.

Furthermore, Ford’s portrayal of the relationship between George and Jim accomplishes something seldom seen in film today; he doesn’t over or underplay the homosexuality of the relationship, nor does he makes an overt political statement or stance on the subject.  Ford simply portrays a real, loving relationship that any of us should wish to posses one day.  The fact that both individuals are men, and this is a gay relationship is merely incidental, and no different from a romantic relationship between a man and a woman.  Few films that portray gay relationships have ever done so in such stride, and it’s refreshing to see a film that portray a couple as just that, two people in love.

The beauty of small stories is that, with the right people involved, there is so much to tell.  On the other hand, A Single Man does so much more than tell the audience a story; it visualizes it perfectly.  Every emotion and sensation can be seen through Ford’s impressionistic view of the world, and felt through Firth’s words and expressive eyes.  Heartbreak and loss have never looked so beautiful.

In the Orange County area, A Single Man is playing at the Edwards University 6 in Irvine.

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