Movie: “A Single Man” — life at the bottom

16 10 2010

A day in the life of a man who has lost his partner. A mental journey to the bottom. Is there anything left to look forward to? A fascinating movie with a very polished surface.

 

"A Single Man" -- poster

"A Single Man" -- poster

 

Background

Christopher Isherwood (1904 – 1986) is an English novelist, most known as the author of “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), the basis for the play “I Am A Camera” (1959) and the film “Cabaret” (1972) by Bob Fosse. His novel “A Single Man” was published in 1964. 45 years later it was transformed into a movie script. The movie that resulted received excellent critical acclaim, as well as generated a nice profit for the production company.

The psycho-social setting of the novel is the gay mind of main character. In this sense it builds upon Isherwood’s own experiences, glimpses of which we saw in “Goodbye to Berlin”. Despite the gay setting, the story has relevance for all of us. Anyone of us may one day find ourselves in a similar state of lacking faith in the future.

Short résumé

It is Los Angeles, California. George Falconer, an university professor in English Literature, of British origin, (Colin Firth) wakes up to yet another day. For some time, he has gone through the regular motions, doing what is expected of him, but with absolutely no enthusiasm. The reason is that his lover (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident some months earlier. They had had a relationship for 16 years. This day he takes a resolution to end his life. During this day and night he encounters students in his English class, bumps into a homosexual young man outside a shop, has a dinner and spends an evening with a dear old friend (Julianne Moore), and in the late evening is contacted by one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) that finally brings some life and hope to Falconer. He sees that losses can generate emptiness, but that new experiences can bring hope and expectations.

Discussion

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the director Tom Ford (1961- ) — well-known American fashion designer — in this, his first move direction job, succeeded so well. Not only has he avoided all the usual traps a novice director can fall into. He has also brought a personal visual touch to the movie, no doubt correlated to the visual taste in the fashion domain.

The story takes place in California in 1962. The locations have been chosen and settings designed to reproduce a strange magical feeling of the early 1960s. The general colouring scheme is greenish brown, with a washed-out/misty tone. That is the colour representation of the depressed mode of Falconer, and at the same time something to remind us of the somewhat restrained colour schemes of the late 50s and early 60s. In a few scenes the sun makes an impression, bringing a more living tone to the scenes.

Falconer’s flashbacks, that provide some key pieces of his recent history, are presented with a sharper palette, containing pronounced colouring schemes, and strong presence of various shades of red.

The same holds for those moments of this day in Falconer’s life when his curiosity or interest is unexpectedly triggered.

Interior design, dresses, etc. are in the style of the period. It is all consistent, believable, and impressive.

But does this mean that the movie is all surface and no contents? Ford — a fashion designer — is only interested in the surface, right? So is there any substance in the movie?

Yes, it is. This kind of story is notoriously difficult to turn into a good movie. The entire movie is about the inner state of Falconer, and when we combine this with the fact that Falconer is a person with a controlled and restrained (British) behaviour, we understand the challenge in production and direction.

 

"A Single Man" -- Firth and Moore

"A Single Man" -- Firth and Moore

 

This is where we need to turn to Colin Firth who is the star of the film. From a celebrity point of view, Julianne Moore is probably more well-known, but in “A Single Man” she is definitely in the shadow of Colin Firth.

Firth’s low-key playing here is admirable. He manages to express  moods and states using body postures and body movements of the smallest kind. Ford’s direction, and camera work  by Eduard Grau,  critically uses extreme close-ups. Parts of a face, fragments of lips, … this is a  challenge for an actor, where the smallest muscles need to be used to communicate a psychological state to the viewer.

Even though Firth dominates the entire film, most other key actors also deliver admirable performances.

The pace at which the story evolves is very slow. “A Single Man” can be seen as an anti-thesis to an action movie.  But that is OK, as it is not about the outer world, but the inner world of George Falconer.

Conclusion

This is a film that deserves the praise that it has received. It is not a feel-good movie, rather a dissection of a life gone stale. But the sheer skill with which it is made is certainly a reason for watching it.

Data

A Single Man” (2009) Direction: Tom Ford; Script: Tom Ford, David Scearce, Christopher Isherwood (book); Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin; length 1:39 (movie at imdb)

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