In 1962 Los Angeles, British ex-pat George Falconer (Colin Firth, "Love Actually," "Mamma Mia!") appears to live a charmed life as a respected college English professor living in an architecturally striking modern home with a Mercedes in its garage. But a phone call from Hank Ackerley (Jon Hamm, AMC's "Mad Men," an association that is distractingly too obvious), a cousin of George's lover Jim (Matthew Goode, "Matchpoint," "Watchmen") sensitive to their relationship, bears the worst news a human being can receive and George suddenly finds himself "A Single Man."
Former Gucci creative director and fashion designer Tom Ford makes his screenwriting and directorial debut adapting the 1964 Christopher Isherwood ("Cabaret") novel and while his cast performs beautifully for him, his obsession with creating a world of beauty stifles his film. Colin Firth's George Falconer is despair at a distance, although the actor nails the utter isolation of grieving for a same sex lover back in the day when such relationships were usually hidden.
The film begins with a dream in which George walks through the snow to the sight of a bloody accident where a handsome young man lies, obviously dead. After tenderly kissing the corpse, George awakens with dread - 'I was never one to jump out of bed to greet the day like Jim was,' he tells us. George proceeds to go through his day, but his plan to commit suicide also keeps progressing (a plot device added by Ford which grounds the film). On campus, George is met by a colleague, Grant (Lee Pace, "The Fall"), who obsesses about the Cuban Missile crisis at Falconer gazes at the naked torsos of the men playing tennis in the court beyond them. In class, his talk on Aldous Huxley is a cover for his outlook on being a minority feared by the masses, and one student, Kenny ("About a Boy's" Nicholas Hoult), corners him after class and even buys him a pencil sharpener (George picks yellow, Kenny red, which George says represents rage and passion). At the bank, George's annoying neighbor's child strikes him anew with her lovely looks and beautiful blue dress and another engaging conversation takes place. Unfortunately, this is also the point where Ford begins to go overboard (an eight year-old girl carrying a jarred live scorpion into a bank with her mother?!).
A drive to the liquor store finds George parking in front of an exquisite mural advertising Hitchcock's "Psycho" and exiting the store only to run into Carlos (model Jon Kortajarena), a gay hustler of extraordinarily good looks whom George merely admires, and a woman with a smooth-haired fox terrier, India, which George inhales deeply, a scene Firth invests with a Proustian depth of loss (that earlier phone call revealed the lovers had shared two dogs, only one of which was found at the accident scene). At home, George lays out all his papers and a full suit of clothes before heading over to his best friend Charley's (Julianne Moore, "Blindness," "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"), another ex-pat with which he's had a past (and whom we've seen in flashback as George's only comfort after losing Jim). Charley is also adrift, having been left by her husband and a son striking out on a life of his own and after imbibing in her well-loved gin, she attempts to lure George back into her bed, a scene Moore plays well as one oft-repeated. Back home, George cannot quite settle on the proper way to off himself, so heads off to the seaside bar where he first met Jim only to be surprised to find Kenny there, almost as if he had been waiting for him.
Ford makes a strong directorial debut, but must learn to scale back on his fashion sense in order to create greater emotional impact. We can accept Falconer making various human connections throughout the day of his planned suicide, but they are undermined when a young girl at a bank is costumed to the nth degree or when a stop for Tangueray turns into a sheaf of Vanity Fair ads. Original music by Abel Korzeniowski is overtly lush and dramatic, calling undue attention to itself as well. And yet, there are authentic period details beneath the luxe sheen Ford's embalmed his film in.
Better is Ford's handling of the screenplay. The decades long relationship between George and Charley is fully evoked in a couple of phone calls and one visit. A flashback to George and Jim sitting together reading not only beautifully sums up their partnership and what made it tick so well, but also comes crashing back at the film's ironic finale. The fledgling director also gets what he needs from his cast. Firth not only takes us to a very lonely place but explains the underlying fortitude it takes to get Falconer through his day by conjuring a man well used to covering his true identity. Moore does more than literally dance with Firth, but shows her heart's conflict with her head in their scene together, and makes Charley a figure of a specific time and place. The now eighteen year-old Hoult displays sensitivity beyond his years and an ear for lending a line reading just the right amount of ironic ambiguity ('I had a hunch about you, sir.' Beat. 'You're a real romantic.').
"A Single Man" is a well-acted and written film, but it's theme of isolation and loss is muffled by Ford's elegant good taste. Fashion's coolness of style does not suit melancholy and despair.
Robin's review coming soon.
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