Single Man, A (United States, 2009)

December 09, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Single Man, A Poster

A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, almost succeeds on the strength of Colin Firth's performance. Unfortunately, the actor is too often upstaged by Ford's visual sensibilities. Rarely has hue - both in its absence and its intensity - been so important to a film (and not always in a good way). However, while it's impossible to deny the artistic intent of Ford's cinematic compositions, his style erects an emotional barrier between the central character and the audience, resulting in a pace that is at times sluggish. A Single Man works to a degree as a character study (it couldn't function as much else since there's little plot to speak of) but the sterility that pervades the story discourages the viewer from fully engaging with the narrator.

It's 1962 and the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis dominates radio and television news. George (Colin Firth), a professor at a small Southern California university, is undergoing his own crisis - one that blinds him to global concerns. He has reached what he expects to be the last day of his life. After spending sixteen years with his beloved partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), he is now alone. A number of months ago, Jim died in a car accident, and George has found himself unable to recover from the loss. He informs us in a voiceover that waking up in the morning is the worst part of the day. Today, however, may be his final time to experience that unpleasantness. It becomes obvious to the viewer that George is planning to kill himself before the next dawn. His day is taken up with the minutia of getting his life in order: cleaning out his office, emptying his safety deposit box, arranging his things, and preparing letters to his friends. As he draws closer to what he expects to be his final moments, his thoughts are more of his past and his years spent with Jim than they are of the present.

Ford has filmed most of A Single Man in a near-monochrome, with the color heavily desaturated. The intent is obvious - this colorless perspective represents how George relates to things; it's a visual metaphor. The process of living has become like eating without taste buds: mechanical and joyless. He looks forward to death as a release from monotony. Occasionally, when something excites George and reminds him of what life is, Ford suffuses the screen with the full spectrum. Technicolor explodes as lips redden, skin tones become healthy, and everything seems vital. In concept, it's an interesting idea, but it is overused and turns into a crutch. By using this shorthand to convey the character's mindset, Ford doesn't have to connect us to George on a deeper, more meaningful level. (The flashbacks are either in full color or, in one curious case, a pristine black-and-white that recalls a magazine ad.)

Colin Firth is a study in carefully repressed grief. The viewer may not feel his sorrow, but one never doubts the character is in a state of living death. Firth's understated portrayal is as effective it as can be in Ford's shackles. The acting, unfortunately, is upstaged by the style, which is not a desirable thing in a "small" movie like this. Outside of Matthew Goode, who appears only in flashbacks, the supporting cast is lackluster. Julianne Moore, in what may be the worst performance of her career, combines a bad British accent and over-the-top acting to induce cringes. Nicholas Hoult, the kid from About a Boy, has apparently fallen prey to the syndrome of child actors losing their talent when they cross the line of demarcation that is puberty. As Kenny, the gay student who wants to be the "teacher's pet," Hoult is less than convincing.

There are times when A Single Man's lethargic approach is almost hypnotic. There's something fascinating about watching a man methodically arrange his life so that, when it closes, there are no loose ends left dangling. Especially early, there's an almost dreamlike quality to the proceedings, as it can be difficult to discern current moments from flashbacks and fantasy from reality. Are the scenes with Jennifer Strunk (Ryan Simpkins) and her mother (Ginnifer Goodwin) happening as they are shown or are they being distorted by George's perception? The effectiveness of Ford's techniques wanes with overuse, however. After a while, things start to drag and there's a tendency toward impatience. More than one viewer will wish that if George is going to shoot himself, he would get on with it.

Film festival response to A Single Man has been rapturous. Firth won an acting award at the Venice Film Festival, where the movie debuted. The Weinstein Company bought the U.S. distribution rights at Toronto, where it made news as the only major "sale" of the festival. An Oscar nomination push for Firth is not out of the question. The actor's workmanlike portrayal of George is worth consideration. A forceful lead performance and visual chicanery are not enough, unfortunately, and the latter is as much a problem as it is an asset. A Single Man tells us about love, isolation, and sorrow, but never makes us feel any of those things.

Single Man, A (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Content, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1