A day in the life
Colin Firth has a great role in a drama both dazzling and moving, writes Donald Clarke
IMAGINE YOU were dragged off the street, plonked before this extraordinary film and asked to identify the celebrity – hitherto successful in another field – who had directed it. You would not, I’d wager, plump for Vinnie Jones or Delia Smith. You probably wouldn’t suggest Tom Ford either, but when told that A Single Man was by the prestigious fashion designer, you’d manage to avoid fainting dead away.
Based on a landmark 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, one of several key gay artists who left Britain for California in the middle of the last century, the film follows
George (Colin Firth), a middleaged academic, as, over one limpid LA day, he attempts to cope with the recent death of his partner in a car crash. He makes small talk with his buttoned-up neighbours. He lectures on Aldous Huxley to a largely uninterested classroom. He knocks back cocktails with a boozy female friend (Julianne Moore), and – in a lovely moment of clumsy release – they dance badly to Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. More worryingly, George buys a box of bullets and considers the least messy way of shooting himself.
Tom Ford was never likely to show his grieving protagonist wearing a stained bathrobe and eating spaghetti hoops from the can, but the ordered beauty of George’s sad life really stops the heart. Every shirt seems to taunt the hero with its dazzling crispness. Cars have an almost comical straight-from-the-showroom gleam, and the director’s decision to fade from washed-out hues to more vivid colours as George’s mood changes has a pleasantly hypnotic effect.
The fetishisation of early 1960s style in Mad Men ( A Single Man is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis) seems somewhat half-hearted by comparison. Watch in awe as one brightly coloured pencil sharpener takes on the quality of a pulsing icon.
The very gorgeousness of the film, bolstered by references to Hitchcock and Antonioni, often threatens to work against its own supposed seriousness. Indeed, if Colin Firth (a deserving Oscar nominee) were not on hand to deliver the performance of a lifetime, A Single Man could very well have ended up as an extended commercial for Tom Ford the man and Tom Ford the label. (Note, for instance, how, when the film turns to monochrome, you instinctively begin thinking of perfume.)
Watching Firth, it becomes clear that, misused too often over a busy career, he has rarely been offered characters whose depths are worth concealing. Employed on cardboard ciphers with no inner life, that subtle underplaying occasionally tends towards woodenness. Here, Firth is invited to reveal hidden turmoil through barely perceptible furrows, inclinations and exhalations. The result is desperately moving and renders George’s one moment of total collapse – the awful phone call during which he hears of his partner’s death – almost indecent in its intrusiveness.
The Isherwood novel, understandably popular during the Aids years, has been seen as a defining text in gay liberation. At a time when even many sympathetic commentators viewed homosexuals as either tragic figures or as exotic, unserious lightweights, A Single Man argued for the ordinariness of their emotions and responsibilities.
Perhaps, by making his film so fantastically delicious, Ford has slightly betrayed that legacy. A little part of the viewer does think: how could anybody be so miserable while wearing that suit, while living in that gorgeous John Lautner house, while socialising with that naughty version of Julianne Moore?
Well, Mr Ford financed A Single Man himself and he can, thus, construct whatever gilded carapace he chooses. The film is an honest reflection of its creator’s sensibilities and, for all its contradictions, it never fails to take the breath away. Don’t miss it.
Sex and the single guy: Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man