A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
We meet George inside his nightmare. His lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), is dead and the corpse lies frozen in the snow. George wakes, and Tom Ford, who directs, wraps us in a cloak of lamentation. Jim, George’s lover of sixteen years, is in fact dead and the half who lives hangs by a thread. We will follow this man go on about his day: how he gets ready for work, his teaching style as an English professor, the colleagues and students he comes across, what he puts into his body in order to numb his inconsolable loneliness. And in between these moments are his thoughts of suicide; with a pistol, he plans to shoot himself in the mouth before bed.
“A Single Man” is based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood and adapted to the screen by Ford and David Scearce. Immediately noticeable is how the picture, in which the story takes place in 1962, places emphasis on outer beauty—the style of one’s home, the designer clothes worn, the accessories sported, perfected coiffed hair, young and fit bodies—as a means to attract, to capture viewers’ attention. But proving to be more important is its introspective approach in telling a highly personal story of loss and longing. Notice its fondness for close-ups, particularly of the eyes. And so when we are thrusted into a memory, it feels most natural because we are constantly hanging at the window.
One of the more curious techniques is the use of color. Since we see through the depressed subject’s eyes, images tend to look gray and desaturated. Editing is rampant at times, off-putting but most appropriate, creating “missing moments” between instances of action, like moving from one part of the room to another, as if it to communicate that our protagonist is divorced from living in every beat of the moment. His mind is somewhere else.
But when George finds interest, or joy, or happiness toward someone or something, images turn vibrant. Colors like red and yellow—which also come up in another context—invade the screen like a breath of fresh air. These intoxicating moments are evanescent; the more often they ebb and flow, the deeper our understanding of George’s mindset, why he feels that ending his life is the only solution. I believe what the character experiences goes beyond mourning of someone he loves; I think he is deeply afraid of the future, of not being wanted anymore—not because he is getting older (although that can be factor) but because finding someone who understands you thoroughly, like what he found in Jim, is rare—so rare that not everyone comes across something like that in their lifetimes. But to have that and have it be taken away, it’s heart-wrenching.
I am convinced that Colin Firth was born to play George Falconer. In character studies, the subject’s eyes tend to be most revealing. Firth employs, quite astutely, the exact opposite: his eyes likens that of a whiz poker player. It is not because his lover had died and that he closed himself off. While those things hold true, consider: Surely George has chosen to master this trait once he realized he was gay, when homosexuals were considered to be less human, disgusting, abominations. Not letting his eyes reveal crucial aspects of himself is one way of becoming invisible, of blending into the background, “belonging.” Firth’s technical approach draws us in while Ford bathes us with the details, mostly through flashbacks, of what makes his subject just like you or me, regardless of our sexuality and sexual orientation.
“A Single Man” inspires the viewer to want to see, to look beyond the artifice and wrestle with its substantive ideas, themes, and emotions. And although the subject wishes to commit suicide, there are some funny moments, too. Because what is a portrait of a life without humor?