REVIEW: A Single Man [2009]

“I think that I am taken”

A series of flashes, shooting before your eyes—this is what people like to believe happens as you die. A Single Man looks to corroborate this hypothesis, beginning with our discovery of George Falconer’s pain and depression dealing with the death of his long-time lover Jim, continuing to show him put his gun into an attaché as he leaves for work on a day of farewells. Scored to a magnificent orchestral symphony, the film takes us on a journey through the fragmented moments of George coming to grips with his loss as well as his own mortality. We see the close-ups that gain his attention, the memories flooding back into his consciousness, and the sheer weight of sorrow that plunges him deeper and deeper into the abyss of loneliness, drowning him each time he closes his eyes. Invisible to the world as a homosexual in the 60s, George realizes that the one person he could truly connect with completely, the one person that truly saw him for who he was, has abruptly disappeared. The only desire that remains is to go away too; leave the petty judgments behind and spend eternity with the purist love he’s known.

This is one of the most sure-handed debuts I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Here is a man in Tom Ford that decided to move on from being a fashion designer—one that turned around a company such as Gucci from collapse—to a writer/director in the movie industry. Definitely having a flair for style, the trailer alone got me interested in the film for its sheer beauty and economy of design. Purely images spooling through with the film score at its back, this advertisement showed what kind of visual powerhouse A Single Man could be, but the story was still left in the dark. However, with help from David Scearce, Ford adapted the Christopher Isherwood novel and brought the kind of gravitas of storytelling that was necessary to accompany such a hauntingly image driven work. As for cinematographer Eduard Grau, I’ve never heard of any of the films on his resume, but boy do I hope he starts to run wild in Hollywood with his masterful handling of composition and framing. For all I know Ford storyboarded this thing to the finest detail; whether or not that’s true, he is still the man on top that somehow culled together a group of actors and crewmembers to create a remarkable piece of art, front to back.

No matter how beautiful it is to look at, though, it is only a shell until what’s onscreen becomes real. Colin Firth is better than I have ever seen him, completely intertwined with George and all but removed from his own persona. His world has been shattered so fully and so suddenly that he doesn’t even have time to grieve, nor is he allowed to when Jim’s parents don’t acknowledge the man their son has lived with for sixteen years as a member of the family. An outsider his entire life, the man that made him relevant was now gone. Firth’s collapse into oblivion is emotionally true, especially when juxtaposed by the flashbacks of his wittily sarcastic self, perpetually smiling alongside his boyfriend. To cut harshly between that joy, to the underwater writhing, bound by invisible chains, to the old and beaten man we see in the present only compacts the interior workings of this English professor. The good and the bad are racing past his consciousness so fast that he can’t even linger in happiness long enough to help him through the pain that will soon drive a stake into his heart. All he can think to do is tie up loose ends and ready himself for the next stage of his journey, hopefully the final chapter of a play that has had him alone for longer than he’d care to remember.

Nicholas Hoult—the new muse, so to speak, that has arrived on George’s path—has a wonderful line about us all being born alone, dying alone, and between it all being trapped inside an isolated body. Perhaps we do exist to be by ourselves, many say you can’t truly love another until you do yourself, so there may be a lot of truth to this thought. But no matter how much time we spend walking in circles inside our own head, there are still connections on the outside that we make, relationships to keep us sane and feel valued. Firth’s George speaks about how he doesn’t regret it all; there were still those moments when he connected with someone so fully that all the smog blocking his view dissolved into absolute clarity. We live for these instances—no matter how brief—to give us meaning to go on towards a future that we all know will end in death. The end is inevitable, but the journey is completely up to us. We are given the opportunity to meet people like Julianne Moore’s Charley, lifelong friends to love and cherish, those few souls we let inside and can rely upon implicitly. They are just as messed up and scared as the rest of us, and Charley is no exception, but to see another going through the same hardships as us only proves how we all can survive and beat whatever obstacles block our way.

Our entire lives consist of our own perceptions of what we see, so forgetting to look is the greatest error any of us can make. George is contemplating the end and walking towards it with full knowledge, but along the way he notices the little things that he otherwise was too busy to see before. Ford gives us the close-ups of meticulously drawn eyeliner, the slomotion exhalation of smoke from a would-be actor’s mouth, the simple gifts in life such as a bright yellow pencil sharpener, and the freckled, boisterous laughter of a drunken friend—each frame a snapshot from the viewer, a frozen image that only he had the privilege and perspective to witness. All those remembrances of Jim, that young man strong in body and soul, (portrayed to confident perfection by Matthew Goode), are trapped in our brains to be called upon when needed. Each one of us is filled to the brim with experiences that shape the people we become, ever-evolving, until the day we leave this earth. A Single Man is a manifestation of one man’s realization of how none of the good times would ever have been so without the bad to contrast them. George Falconer is a man pushing into his fifties that only truly knew who he was for a short 16 years of that lifetime. What he didn’t realize, until it all came back to him, was that all we ever need is one singular second to finally see that all the peaks and valleys were worth it. It only takes one moment of pure bliss to erase what came before or will come after—it’s all a dream, after all, one we wander through frame by frame, constructing ourselves with every step.

A Single Man 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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  1. [...] A Single Man, review: Visually stunning and powerfully acted, Tom Ford’s debut is a wonderful piece of art. Colin [...]



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