Mark Reviews Movies

A SINGLE MAN (2009)

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode

MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 12/11/09 (limited); 12/25/09 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 25, 2009

Writer/director Tom Ford is famous as a fashion designer. His cinematic debut A Single Man displays that he clearly has an eye for visual aesthetics, and as a result, this movie is certainly something to behold.

His color schemes bring out a nostalgic sense of period (here, 1960s Los Angeles), with vibrant colors as though he and cinematographer Eduard Grau painted some scenes and faces with pastels. Then he takes these and contrasts them, sometimes within the same scene, with the dull, dreary air of a man who has lost the love of his life. Collin Firth, playing that man, spends a lot of the early part of the movie as though his character is perpetually stuck in a cloudy day in his hometown of London.

The concept behind it is apparent. Here is a man stuck in the past, unable to live in the moment and see the beauty around him. Even more obvious are the moments of specific color, as Firth's George and one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) discuss how blue is representative of the spiritual and red can be rage or passion or lots of other things. When a little girl shows up in a bright blue dress and the student flirts with him at a bar surrounded by red in the background, we're thrown completely out of the moment for Ford's insistence on making his symbolic point so crystal clear.

This is not a devastating fault for A Single Man, as the palette, in addition to looking stunning at times, also helps escalate the sense of loss and the very real possibility of missed opportunity.  Ford's pacing helps a lot in this vein, too, as he lets George go through his routine day of reading, reminiscing the death of the love of his life Jim (Matthew Goode), teaching, and getting ready for a night of eating, drinking, and conversation with his best friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore).

He also packs a gun into his briefcase before heading to class, assembles all the items from his safety deposit box, and makes a stop at a gun store to buy bullets.

As a study of a man who has reached the end of his rope and can no longer bear the overwhelming pain of grief, the movie is intriguing. George goes about his day as though there is nothing wrong. When a colleague mentions that he has built a bomb shelter in preparation for what he thinks is almost imminent nuclear war, George simply dismisses the suggestion that he build one himself. Besides, if his co-worker hides the shelter because there's no place for sentiment in a world facing utter annihilation, George doesn't want to be in a world without sentiment.

He has a discussion in class with his students—a rarity, according to the flirtatious student—about the power of fear and how it's fear of the unknown that keeps people hiding their true selves from the world. A gay man in the 1960s knows a lot about this, and his student has been thinking a lot about the idea as well.

Fear of the unknown is something with which George has clearly come to grips, or at least he finds it more inviting than waking up another morning after dreaming about Jim's solitary death on the side of a road in Colorado or himself drowning and not being able to breathe when he wakes up.

George's mind flashes to many memories of Jim. He remembers sitting with him, reading and listening to music. He remembers their first meeting at the bar where he later happens to run into the student. These are good recollections, but they are made unbearable to George when he remembers a phone call one night from Jim's cousin. Jim's parents didn't want to let George know their son had died, but the cousin didn't think it right to hide it. By the way, the funeral is only for family.

He cried that night after running to Charlotte's, and we wonder if he's ever cried since then.

His life since that night has been bland and monotone, and Ford and Grau take that idea literally, envisioning George's life drably. He only allows himself to take in life when remembering Jim. He spots a dog that looks like the one the two of them had before, takes in a deep breath of the pet's aroma, and color floods the screen instantly.

There's a darkly humorous scene in which George tests out the best way to kill himself, finding potential for error or unflattering ending positions in them all (ending in that universal truth that a ringing phone cannot go unanswer), and it's Firth's performance, so continually shell-shocked yet calm and collected, that allows the joke to unfurl as logically as it does.

Firth allows gives A Single Man its much-needed heart. For in all the bluntness of its visual panache and Firth's steady performance, the movie adds up to little more than a study in situational irony. It veers on something deeper and more personal but is a bit too precious in its affectations to actually get there.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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