A Single Man
Joe Nawaz is seduced by the sartorial splendour of Tom Ford's version of the 60's in A Single Man
It’s been said that the break-up of a relationship is most akin to a bereavement. There is a period of mourning after separation as palpable as if the loved one in question had indeed physically expired.
Perhaps it suits our selfish narcissistic natures that once somebody is out of our life’s orbit, they do indeed cease to exist. Having experienced both ‘B & B’ in my several years on this planet, I’d go as far as to say that the break-up is if anything tougher, augmenting as it does such pleasantries as failure and rejection onto the already painful loss.
When Christopher Isherwood wrote his novel A Single Man in 1964, it is alleged that he was in the throes of despair from just such a break-up.
In the novel, a middle-aged college professor is struggling to find meaning in his life after the sudden death of his younger, long-term partner. It doesn’t take a 2:2 in psychology to recognise the emotional transposition at play here and yet the novel still managed to be both moving and profound without even an aftertaste of saccharine.
Isherwood until recently was one of the great unlamented English prose writers of the 20th century. He’s often been criminally overlooked because of the simplicity and precision of his writing (the very things that were lauded in his contemporary Capote) – and it’s only relatively recently that he’s (posthumously) come into some kind of critical vogue.
Who else but Tom Ford, the voguish fashion designer of simplicity and precision and nauseatingly effortless sophisticate would take the stuff of Isherwood’s best novel and convert it for the big screen? Moreover, who else but benevolent dictator like Tom Ford could take such a powerful and personal text and sublimate it absolutely to his own design?
It’s been public knowledge since he left Gucci years back, that Ford (ever the polymath) was shopping around for a script for his first film. He says that when re-reading A Single Man in his late forties, it chimed so much with aspects of his own life that he knew that he’d found his first film.
Expanding several key parts of Isherwood’s book that he felt to be most personally resonant, Ford set about to remake A Single Man in his own image.
From the off, it is, as you would expect, ravishing to behold. Every frame, every shot is like a beautifully composed, hi-concept advert. The opening shot of Colin Firth floating in water, hanging like a beautifully lit corpse could be used, for example, to promote any range of vanity products for the man about town.
In fact I’d hazard that this movie will trigger a diseased rash of copy-cat product porn for the years to come. Ford’s eye for composition and detail is unendingly tasteful, evocative and above all authentic. He successfully realises (I asked an old American!) an early-sixties American society to rival that TV series about guys who actually work in adverts.
Colin Firth plays George, the English College Professor who has lost the love of his life to a car accident. The film plays out a day in his life with the key people in his life, among them his alcoholic best friend Charley, an infatuated male student and his dead lover Jim.
It becomes obvious that Jim’s prevalence throughout the film (in flashback, photo, dream and in apparition) is because George cannot let go of the past, thereby cutting himself off from the vitality of now.
This tragedy is exacerbated, movingly by the fact that he can’t share his grief with anyone because he is a gay man, out of time and place. It’s reinforced in a lovely early scene when a cousin of Jim’s rings simply as a courtesy to tell George that he has been killed in a car-crash. There is of course no question of George attending the family funeral – his love goes unrecognised, his pain is invisible.
As he puts it to his students later: “a minority is anybody that we fear. And they don’t always have to look different from us.”
In a bizarre way A Single Man is a kind of companion / contrast piece to the Cohen Brother’s A Serious Man. Both have characters of a certain age who find their lives bereft of meaning in an unlovely world, whose interior lives are much more tangible to them than their physical interactions.
The difference is that in A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik is searching for an answer, something to repair the void, and thanks to the Cohen’s finely honed line in existential sarcasm, is never ever allowed to do that. Larry’s revelation is that there is no revelation.
A Single Man however, is all about redemption and revelation; not the grandiloquent expansive nonsense that frequently masquerades as a character’s ‘journey’, but the smaller more personal and intensely more meaningful gift of clarity.
Colin Firth as George is wonderful. One thing I never realised about Firth before was the incredible stillness of his acting. His George does very little physically to convey a welter of conflicting emotion and thought and it entirely befits a character who protectively and pathologically internalises all genuine sentiment.
He is simultaneously world-weary and kind, gawky and guarded, loveable and distant. You would dearly love to be George’s friend and you know he’d be delightful company and pleasant enough to you, but he’d never truly let you in. It’s a beautiful little performance as a character which was tailor-made (figuratively and literally) for him. It certainly deserves the pre-Oscar squawking that predictably attends such iconic roles.
Julianne Moore as George’s drunken best friend Charley is, as you’d expect from the finest female American actor of her generation, just right. From her impeccable English patter to her Ford-styled apparel she is every inch the middle aged roué still in love with a man she can never have.
In fact, on a small point of triva: whether by default or design, Ford has assembled a principle cast where all the actors are either English playing American (pretty boys Matthew Goode and Nicolas Hoult are both Brits) or American playing English (Moore) or just simply English. I doubt it’ll come up in any pub quiz though.
The design and costuming of the film are as stunning as the cinematic composition and after seeing George, a man in his early fifties, dressing for dinner with an evening suit so sharp it had an answer for everything, I’ve resolved to incinerate my current shameful, shabby wardrobe and start from sartorial scratch again.
An acquaintance of mine put it best when he said that he was making fantasy plans to have his life transported to 60s America with Tom Ford overseeing the art direction. He certainly won’t be the only one.
This film for all its crafted lustre is about identity, memory and loss. What do we do after a loss of any kind? How do we cope? Can we ever get back to loving life again? And rather beautifully, A Single Man is absolutely life-affirming. It is about living in the present and really making time to appreciate the little moments in life as they happen. As suicidal and inconsolable as he is, George’s final epiphany brings that sense of grace to him and the ending, though sad, is also palpably uplifting.
As an exercise in studied melancholia a Single Man is peerless. Its elegiac mood doesn’t lift but nor does it reduce the viewer to torpor – the performances are too interesting for that and the camera is constantly treating our eyes to something new and beautiful and decidedly sixties.
If I was in possession of a whit of glibness and a pair of brackets, I would venture that Tom Ford has made (S)ad Men, but that’s to dismiss the import of the word ‘sad’ and to demean the movie with poor comparison. Who knew that the emperor of artifice also possessed a heart? Watch A Single Man, change your wardrobe, then change a little piece of your life.