Tom Ford’s A Single Man is an intimate, refined drama about a gay man living in 1960s California where much of the story tension is on an internal level. That may limit its appeal among mainstream audiences, as opposed to a more traditional narrative like Brokeback Mountain, which would be a shame.
It’s to be expected, I guess, from director Tom Ford, famed fashion designer turned filmmaker who is making his debut with the film (his only previous film credit: Daniel Craig’s wardrobe in Quantum of Solace).
A Single Man immediately identifies Ford as an auteur with impeccable control over his craft. It also serves as some kind of landmark in queer cinema: so sophisticated, so refined, I cannot recall a film so evocative while simultaneously so non-explicit. The closest you’ll get to outright sexuality is a brief kiss, but the vibes resonate throughout the movie.
Based on a short story by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man follows college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), a Californian transplanted from the UK, through the course of, mostly, a single day.
He styles himself in front of the mirror, watches his neighbors – a suburban family of four, visits the bank, teaches Aldous Huxley to a group of uninterested students, has a drink with friend Charley (Julianne Moore).
It’s November 1962. Some months ago, George’s partner Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashbacks) was killed in a car accident. In an unforgettable scene, George is informed of the accident by Jim’s cousin (an excellent, uncredited voice cameo by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), who politely informs him that the funeral is for family only.
George was, and is, despondent. Suicidal, maybe. Jim was his true love. He meets a good-looking hustler (Jon Kortajarena) outside a liquor store, and a persistent student (Nicholas Hoult) seems to want a deeper relationship with the professor. But the thought of developing something with either of them doesn’t even seem to register with George. He’s still loyal.
A Single Man is all character study, and Firth is exceptional in the central role in a wonderfully controlled performance. Hoult is also quite good. Moore seems to have less to do here than the casting would indicate; her British accent is slightly distracting.
Art direction is impeccable; a desaturated color palette occasionally bursts with vibrancy when something catches George’s eye. The scene with Kortajarena is memorably framed beneath a giant billboard for Hitchcock’s Psycho.
I don’t know if Ford has any plans to make future films, or if this was just a one-off from a story that touched him personally.
I do know this: A Single Man features the care and precision of a director in complete control of his craft, recalling the skill of an Antonioni (Blow-Up) or Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love). It’s easily one of 2009’s best films, limited only by its range of appeal.