Film Review: A Single Man (2009)

By James Madden. Viewed 04/03/10

From the opening image of Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, you can tell that you are in for an aesthetically focused piece of cinema. The opening image that surfaces is that of Colin Firth’s naked body, floating in the ocean, almost motionless. This and many more similar images continue to permeate throughout the film, where each shot seems as meticulously planned as a photographic image.

The film can be separated into two parts: the story and the aesthetic image that exposes it. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is set in 1962 when the lover of middle-aged English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) has just died. On this day, George, consumed by grief, decides that this is the day he will die himself. Throughout the rest of the day we see George compulsively lay out his affairs, and exchanges what he intends to be his final moments with his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) as well with one of his intrigued students (Nicholas Hoult). The result is a sensitive and moving story. There are even moments of humour infused within the film where we see George’s mundane habits and routines paradoxically showing a conservative person who is about to do something uncharacteristically radical.

I heart J.M. majorly

The acting features some superb American dialects from the British natives Matthew Goode (who plays George’s deceased lover Jim) and Nicholas Hoult, as well as a posh and convincing English accent from the American Julianne Moore. Hoult and Goode’s roles seem to provide the necessary boyish charm running alongside Firth to truly emphasise the mid-life crisis aspect of George. Hoult’s Kenny is a young, fresh, vibrant and very much alive spirit to Firth’s stalled and mourning George. The almost orange coloured (or tanned) skin of the Southern Californian shows a successful left turn from Tony in Skins, the character he’s been most recently identified with. Goode, on the other hand, plays the part of the quintessential American boy credibly, and manages to make an impression without a lot of screen time.

Moore is a breath of fresh air, despite playing the boozy best friend character who shows an inability to live in the present, with her presence steering some fun into what may seem to be a bleak and gloomy story. Winner of the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival as well as nominations from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Academy Awards and a win at the BAFTA’s, Colin Firth shows a matured, multi layered and brilliant turn as George. Finally landing a character that has given his career the most attention since Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Firth demonstrates a seasoned performance, only capable from the greatest actors. It truly is one of the best performances of the season.

No more Mr. Darcy guy!

It is no surprise to see Tom Ford, the noted fashion designer and former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, moving towards direct feature films. Notoriously known for running the infamous Sophie Dahl YSL Opium fragrance (with Dahl lying on her back, naked and suggestive with her legs apart) and the YSL M7 advertisements (where French model, Samuel de Cubber, became the first naked model in mainstream American advertising), Ford has shown an interest in the projection of the image. Alongside Eduard Grau, his cinematographer, Ford has created a film that could be also produced as a series of photographic stills.

Flashbacks to scenes where Jim was alive show black and white glossy images that feel ripped straight out from a Gucci advertisement. This is also seen with the casting of a James Dean type renegade character, played by a model, usurping the actors sphere. With a large focus on the image, combined with the repeated cuts to Firth’s naked body floating in the ocean, we see a film that is all about the gaze at the male body. Ford demonstrates what now seems to be the popular re-imagining and transgression of Laura Mulvey’s seminal triple male gaze theories in the mid 1970s, whereupon the male body is the projection of desire and “to-be-looked-at-ness”.

Rounding off the aesthetic look, Dan Bishop and Amy Welles as well as many others came on board in the production design team. Both had worked on the American cable television series Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, which is set at the offices of advertising agency in New York City at the same time, which can be picked up upon easily.. Abel Korzeniowski makes a strong impression with a score that reminded me of a Philip Glass work, and highlighted the successful execution of the crucial and often overlooked element of film scoring. While the AMPAS rudely ignored Abel, HFPA rewarded Korzeniowski with a well deserving Golden Globe nomination.

If beautiful images are your thing, then A Single Man is not to be missed. In fact, seeing the film, just one single time is not enough. Repeated viewings are a must.

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