Directed by:Tom Ford
Do you remember having a collage professor who was academically brilliant but so standoff-ish nobody cared for him? A male friend of your parents who was highly thought of but personally unappealing? That sort of “easy to admire but hard to like” persona lies at the center of fashion maven Tom Ford’s debut as writer/director of this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel which chronicles a single day in the life of a reserved English professor in Los Angles at the time of the Cuban missile crisis who’s desperately trying to cope with the death of his male lover. Boasting an Oscar nomination for Colin Firth as Best Actor and bevy of recognition in various categories bestowed by other film competitions, Single Man arrives on the screen with a number of plaudits to its credit. Admirable it certainly is…
Firth, whose career accomplishments bespeak a talent often hidden behind the diffidence that’s become his screen trademark, excels here as George, a suitably bespectacled professor with an acid tongue, a low tolerance for students’ hypocrisies and sadly possessed of a mega-sized torch for Jim, his younger, live-in lover who died months before the story opens in a automobile crash. George vents his spleen at smug students during morning classes and his neighbors at cocktail hour later in the day with perfectly enunciated observations about their vacuous behavior but he saves his real feelings for dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore) a boozy divorcee with whom George had a brief fling years before when he was discovering the nature of his own sexuality.
George successfully resists the come-on of a male hustler on his way to see Charley, but when an overly attentive student named Kenny engages George in a dialogue about the meaning of life late in the evening, George goes skinny-dipping with the young man and takes him home only to have a crisis of conscience which allows George to begin moving on with his own life just as a climatic disaster changes everything…
Firth’s performance is a study in painstakingly suppressed emotions; from the thick horn rim glasses which he wears as a mask, to the near funeral style of his clothing to the occasional emotional outbursts he so furiously chokes down, George seems on the verge of eruption. What initially seems to be an elaborate amount of attention paid to the clothes he lays out for the following day becomes the first in a series of visual hints that he intends the current day to be his last. (Whether the plot’s resolution strikes you as profoundly moving or completely asinine will largely depend on whether you can manage feelings for George beyond admiration for his many fine qualities.)
As Charley, Moore turns in another of her highly-charged cameo performances, further establishing her as an actress whose time on screen bears no relation to the quality of her work or her impact on the movie’s storyline. Thanks to A Single Man’s numerous flashbacks, British actor Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited) provides a lovably feckless Jim, but Nicholas Hoult’s Kenny never convinces as the late-stage teenager whose sexual identity issues first attract George and then serve to give the older man an opportunity to define the boundaries of his life and come to terms with Jim’s death.
Since this is essentially a four-character story, (which perhaps could have been more effectively presented as a play) the film’s cinematography and related technical features never rise above the solidly adequate, but they in no way detract from the movie either.
Ford, who comes from a highly successful career in the fashion industry (he saved Gucci from near bankruptcy and then contributed significantly to the house of Yves Saint Laurent before starting his own line of men’s clothing) provides a nicely detailed screenplay and moves the film’s pace along with commendable attention to the culmination of his storyline, but in the end, audience reaction will inevitably be formed by its reaction to George. You made admire his fortitude, honor his feelings for the love of his life and his dignified treatment of those who seek his strength and support - - but in the end, any film so starkly focused on an off-putting main character like this needs to make him somehow appealing. It’s to Ford and Firth’s credit that they work resolutely not to do so.
The verdict? Clearly admirable. Likeable? That’s a much harder question...
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