SHORT TAKE: “A Single Man” (***1/2)

Posted by · 6:26 am · September 11th, 2009

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single ManVenice Film Festival

In a curious way, revered fashion designer Tom Ford had a defined auteur’s stamp before he ever so much as shot a frame of his debut film: from his louche advertising campaigns to his infamous curation of Vanity Fair’s 2007 Hollywood issue to the forms and textures of his designs themselves, Ford has constructed a highly idiosyncratic brand identity fusing burnished retro cool and chilly modern eroticism.

No surprise then, that the handsome, eggshell-delicate character study “A Single Man” is very much an extension of that identity: trading in polished surfaces and swoonily aestheticized desire, the film looks on occasion like an animated GQ shoot. (And yes, Ford provides the leading man’s wardrobe.)

But just as you’re tempted to dismiss the film as a gorgeous vanity exercise, it reveals a keen beating heart beneath the decor — and the match of Ford’s precise sensibility to Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 literary examination of the effect of grief on an overly compartmentalized life begins to make perfect sense.

In a graceful, meticulous performance that easily ranks as his finest screen work to date — and merits serious awards consideration — Colin Firth plays George, a British academic living in Los Angeles who finds his life slowing to an impasse as he struggles to recover from the death of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode). As he bides his time with increasingly indifferent teaching and melancholy get-togethers with his boozy friend and neighbor Charley (a tart, affecting miniature from Julianne Moore), the film follows George through a single day, wherein a key life decision gradually veers off-course.

It’s a spare, moving narrative of only-connecting, through which Ford initiates larger enquiries into sexuality, loneliness and etiquette: it’s easy to read Firth’s intriguingly opaque characterization as a mirror for Ford’s own personal and social insecurities.

To this end, the arch visual stylization that runs rampant here feels fitting; some might cry “indulgence” or even “kitsch” over Ford and DP Eduard Grau’s shimmery images of bodies in motion, not to mention intricate lighting tableaux that blush from desaturation to rosy intensity according to George’s mood, but this sensual excess (alternately recalling Visconti and Wong Kar-Wai in its most beautiful moments) aptly chimes in with the heightened perspective of its character. (Nobody in their right mind, meanwhile, should have a problem with Abel Korzeniowski’s exquisite score.)

I don’t want to oversell the film, whose talkiness and modesty of scale will probably keep it at the bijou end of the arthouse, but it’s a distinctive, deeply felt debut from someone with a clear, confident feel for the medium. Whether or not Tom Ford is actually a born filmmaker remains to be seen — I’m fascinated to see where he goes from here — but the material of “A Single Man” couldn’t be more elegantly tailored to his build.

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

19 responses so far

  • 1 9-11-2009 at 6:49 am

    Graham said...

    I thought that said “A Serious Man”, had to do a double-take then. :x

  • 2 9-11-2009 at 6:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ha! That hadn’t occurred to me, actually. I wonder how many arthouse cinemagoers will be confused when the new Coen Brothers film they thought they were going to see begins with a naked Colin Firth.

  • 3 9-11-2009 at 8:21 am

    Jim T said...

    I’m so glad you liked it Guy. How big is Moore’s role? I guess the movie is almost all about Firth?

    It is a very good thing that Ford made a movie that pleases not only the eye.

  • 4 9-11-2009 at 8:30 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Was Julianne Moore any good in this…? Glad to see Colin Firth gave a career best.

  • 5 9-11-2009 at 10:36 am

    j said...

    One of my T10 anticipated of the year. I’m really glad it’s good as it really could have gone either way.

    Let’s see what other blogs/news sources say: Plenty of applause. From Times Online: “a thing of heart-stopping beauty. He celebrates the male form with a sensual reverence…visual articulacy of Wong Kar Wai and frames his shots with elegance and wit [Hmm, already multiple comparisons to Wai]…emotional honesty and authenticity which announces the arrival of a serious filmmaking talent.”

    Grazia Daily: Exquisite, beautiful, soulful.
    Some comparison to Mad Men which is the (TV) critics’ favorite thing on TV.

    One source considers Capitalism & Lebanon the top contenders for tomorrow’s prize, with Single Man & Life During Wartime in contention as well. But according to LA Times, the only winner this decade that got a BP nom was Brokeback. 10 noms might make a diff though.

    Hmm, I’ve seen Firth in Pearl Earring, Love Actually, What a Girl Wants. None of those roles was very baity.

    Mr. Nobody is tomorrow. As is Vintner’s Luck over at Tiff.

  • 6 9-11-2009 at 12:04 pm

    Liz said...

    J: Speaking of “Mad Men,” Variety wrote that the show’s star, Jon Hamm, appears in an uncredited voice-only role in “A Single Man.” So, maybe Ford saw the comparisons coming.

  • 7 9-11-2009 at 12:21 pm

    andrew said...

    Very intriguing, does Julianne Moore have substantial enough screen time/and or strong enough performance to pull her into the race again finally?

  • 8 9-11-2009 at 12:52 pm

    jess said...

    With this and Chloe and Private Lives of Pippa Lee, it seems like Moore is back in auteur mode with well-received performances.

    She still has plenty of meaty parts in front of her.

  • 9 9-11-2009 at 1:12 pm

    j said...

    Thanks, Liz. I read the rest of the review and then proceeded to read A Serious Man’s review on THR when I went to see if they had Single Man up yet.

    Review says it’s a delicate, empathetic, luminous, impressive, sterling treasure. And this sounds promising: “Scene in which she makes what is presumably the latest in a long line of drunken passes at him is a classic, demonstrating extraordinary emotional nuance from Firth and Moore, both of whom firmly grasp the best roles either has had in some time.”

    Huh, only her work in End of the Affair got all 4 major noms – Oscar, Bafta, Sag, Globe. I’m hoping she deserves and gets a nom here; none of the sup actress apparent heavies is particularly exciting to me. Firth has just a Bafta nom for Bridget Jones.

  • 10 9-11-2009 at 5:54 pm

    tim said...

    Just wanted to post the phenomenal trailer….

  • 11 9-12-2009 at 2:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Moore’s role is small but crucial. There’s certainly enough screen time for awards consideration, but I think the performance is a little too subtle for the Academy, which tends to prefer their cameos on the extravagant side. (Or by Ruby Dee.)

    And Encore, I praised her performance in the review.

    I can understand the “Mad Men” comparisons, though they derive largely from its visual/period trappings.

  • 12 9-12-2009 at 8:35 pm

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Ah, had to re-read the review…I ignore parentheses. Although still a decided Oscar groupie I just want to see Julianne in top form…or close to. I don’t see a nod forthcoming…but I can hope.

  • 13 9-15-2009 at 5:26 pm

    Mike54 said...

    Critics are saying that Moore will recive oscar nomination for sure!!!

    Plus she is getting great rearviews for her performances in Chloe and TPLOPL…

    And her previous work can push her to Oscar win… It’s about time!!!

  • 14 9-15-2009 at 5:28 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Don’t get too excited. It’s lovely work, but it’s SMALL. And subtle. Just saying.

  • 15 10-23-2009 at 12:16 pm

    Ann Canas said...

    Look forward to seeing it. But isn’t anyone else just sick to death of the transcendently hackneyed doting fag hag who is transparently in love with her best and most charmingly rejecting gay friend? Seriously. Most of us [women] are and were not always so inwardly and romantically desperate. I know it’s a book adaption – but maybe there was opportunity missed for a bit more texture here. Julianne Moore deserves an award for taking it on.