Torn apart by the shattering impact of the death of his long-time lover, college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) experiences the most transformative day of his life, blending past and present, desire and despair, and discovering that love persists even after the object of love is gone. Set in a sun-drenched 1960s California coastal canyon and featuring Julianne Moore and Matthew Goode, A Single Man marks the directorial debut of American fashion icon Tom Ford.
Tom Ford is the creative maven whose designs brought Gucci back from the brink of bankruptcy and dynastic implosion, so it's little surprise that his debut feature is styled to the hilt. That A Single Man achieves substance beneath the slick veneer is the sign of an accomplished storyteller, unafraid to use the tools of his trade for subversion.
Appearance is everything for George Falconer (Colin Firth), in all manner of speaking. His outward façade exudes the Tom Ford trademark of Classic Sophisticated Masculinity. Ford spares no detail in conveying the trappings of George’s outward perfection, from crisp white shirts tailored by Ford's minions in Milan (natch), to the post-war glass/wood bungalow in sun-drenched 1960s Southern California. Mad Men production designer Dan Bishop rounds out the exquisite period detail with his calling card modernist props and furnishings, supported by crisp sound design (think of a lo-ball scotch glass connecting with a mid-century mahogany tabletop).
"Scandinavian furniture provides little comfort to inconsolable grief"
But all is far-from perfect in George’s world: he has lost the love of his life, Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident, and Scandinavian furniture provides little comfort to inconsolable grief.
It’s an inspired move to cast Colin Firth as George; this marks the actor’s fourth experience of on-screen bereavement and by now he has mastered the barely-discernable shrug of the chin, and stiffening of the lip that masks a wellspring of grief. With intelligence and restraint, he mines the darker recesses this time, rejecting the accepted wisdom that 'life must go on’. Eight Jim-less months spent attempting just that have taken their toll and George can’t stomach the thought of any more. He buys bullets for his Luger, lays out his funeral suit, and sets about the business of ending his life.
George doesn’t anticipate that ordinary moments might become significant when viewed through the prism of impending suicide, and so it is that his encounters with casual acquaintances become unexpectedly profound: the neighbour’s bratty child is revealed as an empathetic kewpie doll; and the gals in the typing pool become beautiful, complex women (who knew?). Ford underscores this point of taking notice of the small things, by progressively saturating the colour during those moments of true connection.
As a man mourning a relationship that sections of 1960s society choose to deny exists, Firth is good. In flashback he is calm and courteous to the (unseen) caller who follows the news of Jim’s death with a curt disinvitation to the funeral. In private despair, he seeks out best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) but later, through a cloud of pink cigarette smoke and Tanqueray truth serum, she concedes the view that a gay relationship isn’t really as authentic as a straight one.
The looming Cuban missile crisis provides a flashpoint for fear and paranoia, and university lecturer George steers a discussion of Aldous Huxley’s literature into a heavily-coded critique of intolerance. The politics of fear are at play but no one dares tackle them head on, not least the man who lives in the glass house.
Ford interprets Christopher Isherwood’s groundbreaking novel by playing to his own visual strengths. He’s the man who famously referenced a sweaty crotch in his ads for perfume, so is it any surprise that his lens lingers fetishistically on the beautiful things that surround George, from the swarthy hustler in a bottle-shop car park, to Charley’s Hollywood Regency cushion covers, to George’s exquisite 1957 Mercedes 220S coupe (my God, the Mercedes!)?
It’s an orgy of period detail to be sure but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a triumph of style over substance. While the design may translate to a magazine gatefold or Spring/Summer look book, this is not simply 'Grief, by Gucci’. The beautiful images distract from the underlying turmoil, and surely for Ford, as for George, that’s entirely the point.
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Watch 'A Single Man'
Sunday 12 January, 9:40PM on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin, Nicholas Hoult
What's it about?
Torn apart by the shattering impact of the death of his long-time lover, college professor George Falconer (Firth) experiences the most transformative day of his life, blending past and present, desire and despair, and discovering that love persists even after the object of love is gone. Set in a sun-drenched 1960s California coastal A Single Man marks the directorial debut of American fashion icon Tom Ford, who went on to director 2016's Nocturnal Animals.