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A Single Man

February 1, 2010

Solitude. It is an omnipresent state of human being. We come into this world alone. We leave alone. While we are here we are permanently and totally trapped in our physical bodies. Perhaps that is why we are so fascinated by love and spirituality, the strive for which defines our desperate attempts to defy the solitude of our single existence.

“A Single Man” (2009), the directorial debut by legendary fashion designer Tom Ford, is an opulent evocation of a man’s desperate attempt to escape his single existence. The title takes on a double meaning, referring not only to a literal solitude, but an emotional one as well.

We meet George (Colin Firth), a middle age British man living in 1962 Los Angles. He works as an English professor and lives in a beautiful apartment. His life is filled with beauty, evident as we watch him get ready for the day. Impeccable taste, spotless furnitures, subtle and artfully arranged outfit…flawless from head to toe. “By the time I’m dressed,” he looks into the mirror, “I know fully what part I’m suppose to play.” It is obvious that George has perfected his outward appearance. Meeting him for the first time, one can’t help but be envious. We only hope to be so put together ourselves.

Underneath the perfect facade, however, lies a broken man. It’s been eight months since George lost his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident. He is overwhelmed with grief. In flashbacks we see bits and pieces of their life together, one of aged banter and joyful companionship. They lived so comfortably in each other’s presence that it is aching to watch. In one scene they sit together on the sofa and read, seperately, facing each other, legs tucked up and intertwined, a puppy snuggling lazily besides them. They speak of nothing in particular, make fun of each other’s books, and banter over whose turn it is to change the music. They look at each other… long, unabashed glances, and if there is a more full definition of happiness, I have not seen it.

However, happiness is not the pervasive tone of this movie, but rather a contrast tool that is preserved in reveries and dotted sparsely in between the dreary monotone shots of George’s real life. The story spans only one day, the significance of which is not to be missed with the sight of a revolver lying in a drawer. George goes about his last day methodically, adjusting a well-oiled routine with spontaneous outbursts of goodbyes and compliments as he gets ready for the ultimate end. He teaches a class on Aldous Huxley, and gets into an impassioned speech about fear of the minority that almost sounds like a self-confession. The students are disinterested, all except one, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who seems to see past the words and into the man behind the glasses.

Throughout the day George meets more characters, amongst them a little girl at the bank and a gorgeous Spanish James Dean look-alike at the liquor store. Ford taps into his designer side and evocates these encounters brilliantly with colors. The palette shifts from drab neutrals into warmer, fresher shades of blues, yellows, and pinks. It’s almost as if these encounters actually physically brighten up George’s day. The colors pull George’s eyes and that of ours, into focus, and in a way energizes the film, and George’s day, making his impending choice that much more precarious.

Ford is excellent in engaging all our senses to feel that of George’s. His creative control is absolute, and there is an undeniable confidance in the precise way he uses camera angles, colors, and sound to evoke the intangible anguish and desperation that boils within George. Observe when George converses with his colleague besides a tennis court where sweaty, gorgeous young men are playing. As George steals glances at the players, the conversation slowly fades out and the thumping of heartbeats emboldens until that is all we hear. In matching imagery are close-ups of bare chests, gleaming muscles, and sweaty, touchable parts: lips, eyes, the hollow above the collarbone, the small of an arched back, all cut in rapid flashes to the rhythm of the heartbeats. It’s almost as if we are in George’s head and his thoughts have materialized into cinematography. There is nothing said, and George doesn’t give away a single lustful glance, but the desire hangs so thickly in this scene that I wondered if it’ll ever end…and how. Note one single shot of a conventional family portrait in a barn. The internal struggle is unmistakable.

And then, there is Charley (Julianne Moore). Gorgeous, lush, drunk Charley. She and George are old friends who shared a brief and distant history as lovers. He calls her kiddo and brings her gin. She arranges an elegant dinner for them in her elegant house, in which the hallway between front door to the living room is lined with orange trees, like a seductive fortress. Charley is emotional and fragile. Once married and now alone, she is trapped in her decadent house with lots of friends, and yet no one who truly has time for her. Her existence is one of solitude, and we never see her leave the house. She doesn’t even buy her own gin.  She is either in bed or meticulously drawing on makeup in front of the vanity, like slipping on a familiar mask. In one shot we see her face divided, one eye fully made up and the other bare, it’s probably the closest we ever get to the real Charley.

The relationship between George and Charley is one that is often seen in real life, but rarely in cinema. It is a fascinating look into the relationship between a straight woman and a gay man, especially one that retains more of the traditionally masculine qualities. Such a friendship can be very rewarding, as there is no sexual competition and advances, and both parties can easily enjoy the simple fruits of friendship without worrying about its usual downfalls. However, that in itself also lies the danger of misperception, and a woman naturally gets the short end of the stick in such an arrangement. For a gay man is not likely to find a woman sexually attractive, but a straight woman can easily become physically attracted to an outwardly masculine gay man, especially one projected onto the intimacies of a great friendship. It is the sculpture of the perfect man, really. And that is what took place between George and Charley. To her, he’s everything she ever wanted in a companion, or so she thinks. To him, she is a dear friend that he once tried to “have a go” with before meeting his true love, and that he knows. When it boils down to the core, George and Charley are just two lonely souls that long to be connected, to someone, somehow, in some meaningful way. For without that, what is life worth living for?

There is something to be said for something so beautiful. Every single frame of “A Single Man” could be mistaken for a postcard, and even as pure eye candy it succeeds. Fortunately, it is much more than that. Ford evokes an atmosphere of suburbia nostalgia in a repressed time. Firth powerfully convinces us of a man who is seething with desperation to break out of the meaningless cocoon that has become of his life, and yet is so socially shackled that he doesn’t quite know how to make damage. Moore is flawless in her brief outburst as a middle age woman in stasis.

The only blemish I spotted is, perhaps, that it is too beautiful to be absorbed as deeply as I wanted to. The people hurt, but look so flawless while doing so, that it is hard to imagine what a smile and glance in the right direction wouldn’t resolve. Or perhaps that is the irony of it all, that even their flaws are too perfectly covered to be identified with. And then there is the interplay between desire and grief, which I wish Ford would have explored further. It is clear that George feels both, but how he rationalizes one against the other is never quite illustrated. In the last quarter of the film, in fact, he seems positively indecisive on what he wants, which may be fine in itself, but for a man like George, on a day like that day, it is never just a simple indecision. Peeling back the layers of those struggles would have paved way to a more satisfactory conclusion.

In the end though, this is a look at a single man, in a single day, with a single end in mind. But it may as well have been any other person on any other day. There is a single man in all of us, and he is lonely. We can’t undo the physical boundaries of his solitude, but we can do something about the emotional boundaries. That, perhaps, is the only one worth the effort.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 2:08 PM

    I like your review of the film more than the film itself, though Colin Firth and Julianne Moore are excellent in it, as you stated above. Without giving anything away, I felt that the ending cheated.

    Oh, and you forgot to mention the fantastic musical score, which also adds to the mood of this film.

    Grace: Yes the score is great…hard to miss!

  2. February 4, 2010 9:49 PM

    I have really fallen in love with this film. I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t expecting much, but Ford’s elegance and style really blew me away. Like you mentioned in your review, he does every frame to absolute perfection. Sometimes when a filmmaker is so conscious and tedious about what’s in his film, it can feel lifeless and deprived in a way, but that’s certainly not the case here. Firth’s leading performance is also, for my money, the best work done by a male actor in 2009.

    One of the lines that has really stuck with me from the film comes right near the beginning. It’s when Firth is straightening up his tie, and the camera slowly pans up, then Firth says: ‘Just get through the goddamn day.’ The way he says it is just so heartbreaking, and it’s within the first five minutes of the entire movie! That’s how quickly I was won over.

  3. February 5, 2010 10:39 AM

    This reviews makes me want to watch the movie badly. This line in particular: “Every single frame of “A Single Man” could be mistaken for a postcard,” filled me with enthusiasm. I’m a sucker for a movie with excellent composition. What you said made me think of the first time I saw an Ozu film. Every frame in each of his films could be easily mistaken for a postcard. Thank you for this review!

    Grace: I tell no lie…you will see.

  4. February 8, 2010 7:29 AM

    i didnt think i wanted to see this movie but when i read your review i do. i hope to watch it and then maybe tell you what i think about it?

    Don’t Be a Plum

    Grace: even better, write about it.

  5. February 10, 2010 5:28 PM

    In your opinion, how does Firth’s performance rank when considering the other Actor in a Leading Role nominees?

    Grace: I haven’t seen “Crazy Heart” or “Invictus” so I can’t really comment. But of the three I have, I’m leaning towards Renner. He was pitch perfect in “The Hurt Locker”. Firth and Clooney were both excellent, but they have also been excellent before. However from what I hear Bridges’ performance leaves no doubts though…can’t wait to see it.

    • February 11, 2010 1:20 AM

      Since I have seen Crazy Heart, I will say that I thought Jeff Bridges’s performance was great, and that he deserved to win the Oscar….until I saw Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker (thank you, second run movie theaters). They are playing completely different roles, so to compare the two is impossible (plus, Bridges is so good at playing a character by NOT playing a character, he may in fact be better than he seems). But, as someone pointed out to me (she saw the movies in the reverse order from me), Renner’s role requires more of an emotional range than Bridges’s.

      So, Jeff Bridges will win because he gives a great performance in a lifetime of great performances–and he’s never won an Oscar. If I were voting on merit alone, however, Renner would edge him out for the Academy Award. In a different year, Firth or Clooney could have won for their performances, but not this year.

      If I had to rank them (and luckily, I don’t have to), I’d put Renner first, then Bridges, followed by Firth, then Clooney. Like Grace, I have not seen Invictus, so I can’t comment on that performance.

  6. February 20, 2010 12:45 AM

    You write very thoroughly about this film, and through most of the review I found myself thinking that you received this film precisely as the director hoped you would — that you are the dream viewer of every director, the one who watches closely, underlining and underscoring the subtleties of every image. Toward the end, though, you hit on something about this film that I found quite deadly to its ambitions.

    “The only blemish I spotted is, perhaps, that it is too beautiful to be absorbed as deeply as I wanted to. The people hurt, but look so flawless while doing so, that it is hard to imagine what a smile and glance in the right direction wouldn’t resolve. Or perhaps that is the irony of it all, that even their flaws are too perfectly covered to be identified with.”

    To me, the film was so composed that it felt both artificial and claustrophobic; everything people do — whether it’s dying or shitting or smoking or driving — they do beautifully. I agree the film looks like a postcard, but I don’t regard postcards as great photography.

    Have you ever seen a victim of a fatal traffic accident who looks so presentable as George’s lover? The blood on his face seemed almost color-coordinated. The movie smothers you with its unerring tastefulness. Life for Tom Ford seems to be a Benson and Hedges ad, circa 1962, and the style hobbles the story. For all its anguish, it feels stiff and sterile. It’s a film that permits not only no ugliness, but also no sense of raw life, and this lack of reality becomes oppressive.

    Colin Firth delivers a great performance, though; he gets into George’s skin. He has a pulse, which is more than I can say for Tom Ford’s draggy and pretentious film. I wanted to like the film more than I did, and tried looking at it through the lens of irony, as you suggested, but I’m sorry, it just didn’t take.

    Grace: I understand.

  7. April 1, 2010 3:47 PM

    I’m very late reading this, but I just had to tell you how much I love your review. This film moved me deeply and reading your review brought tears back to my eyes.

    Grace: sorry to make you cry…but I’m glad you get it.

  8. humdingercrazy permalink
    September 13, 2010 10:23 PM

    I just saw this film Grace.. I thought it was classy, exquisite, classy and the score was haunting
    Colin Firth is excellent..
    I read he is getting a lot of raves and Oscar buzz on The King’s Speech


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