Tuesday, 16 February 2010

'A Single Man' Review: Colin Firth shines in Tom Ford's decent debut film...

Having recently seen Pixar’s ‘Up’ for the second time, I was struck by its principle (albeit superficial) similarity to Tom Ford’s debut feature ‘A Single Man’. Both films concern a man struggling to continue living life following the death of a loved one. But whilst Carl Fredricksen decides to tether helium-filled balloons to his house and set off on an adventure, George Falconer (portrayed by Colin Firth in an Oscar-nominated performance) resolves to shoot himself in order to alleviate the pain he feels upon waking each day. Yet, the Disney animation led me to cry into my 3D glasses last year, whereas ‘A Single Man’, though undoubtedly handsome and boasting a terrific central performance from Firth, was never able hit me on the same emotional level.

‘A Single Man’ concerns Colin Firth’s George, an English literature professor at a Californian University in 1962, who eight months prior to the films narrative has lost his long-time partner (Matthew Goode) to a car crash. George’s sexuality becomes a central issue which, although Colin Firth and Tom Ford have both been eager to play this down when promoting the film, plays its part in accounting for the George character having to struggle in relative solitude with his socially inconvenient grief. For instance, it emerges (early on) that George was not permitted to attend his late partner’s funeral, whilst in another scene he lectures his class on the fear of difference. It is also his homosexuality that leads George to comment that he “lives in a glass house”, although it should be noted that George is not conflicted within himself with regards to his homosexuality, a fact which marks a refreshing deviance from the Hollywood norm.

Much has been made of the film’s director, Tom Ford, having made his name in fashion, though I must plead ignorance to his work as creative director of Gucci. But it is not the case that ‘A Single Man’ is all style and no substance. Yes, the male characters George meets do look as though they have stepped out of a glossy Calvin Klein ad (with their tight vests and immaculate hair) but I am happy to see the beauty of these figures as heightened by George’s new found fascination with the world as he experiences (what he believes will be) his last day on Earth.

Whilst the costume design is just as elegant and stylish as you’d expect, the films aesthetic beauty is evident in much more than just its sartorial splendour and it is the young (and relatively unknown) Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau who must take credit for what is a very attractively lit film. Whilst I found the transitions between washed out grey tones into ultra-bright, glowing colour (and in one scene to black and white) a little distracting and heavy handed as a device, the film never looks anything less than beautiful. It also helps that the production design is excellent at invoking the period (as expected from the crew behind HBO’s ‘Mad Men’).

It is with elements like the changes in the colour palette, the frequent slow-motion and the pretentious cuts to images of George underwater, which severed my connection with the film as an emotional experience. Especially given the clichéd nature of the images that lead George to see the joy in all the world’s things: these include the sunlight, a rose and a child playing - often with the saturated colour and slow-motion combining to highlight their intense beauty and profundity.

It is also rather distracting that a game of geographical musical chairs appears to be going on amongst the films cast, with two British supporting players (Nicholas Hoult and Matthew Goode) employing ill-advised American accents, whilst Julianne Moore is cast as a British ex-pat. It must be said that Moore does a much better job than her co-stars of convincing after this switch, but it hardly seems to have been necessary to do this in the first place. Not only are there many talented British actresses who could have played Moore’s part, but there are a great many American actors who could easily have filled the other two roles better. That said Julianne Moore gives a really good performance as George’s friend Charley, arguably sharing the best and most intense scene with Colin Firth late in the film.

Colin Firth, as has been recognised in the form of an Academy Award nomination, really excels as George Falconer and holds the entire film together. Finally it seems there is a vehicle for him which finds a way to add a degree of warmth to his rather restrained, but usually cold, manner. In his many roles as a Mr. Darcy figure (literally in the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and later in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’) Colin Firth has had the thankless task of playing the same dashing, but woefully dull, aristocrat. Here he demonstrates that he is rather more talented than all that, and where ‘A Single Man’ works, it is Colin Firth who comes away looking the best for it. I haven’t yet seen Jeff Bridges in ‘Crazy Heart’, but on the evidence of ‘A Single Man’ Bridges performance must be pretty spectacular if it beats Colin Firth to the Oscar this March, as expected.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of aspects of the film; with the excellent cinematography and production design being two key examples. Tom Ford is certainly a better director than many predicted when the film was announced and his debut film is handsomely made to the extreme. But when ‘A Single Man’ should sit still and draw you into its gripping central performance and wholly relatable emotional story (we will all lose somebody important in our lives), Ford insists on employing some unfortunate visual gimmicks and slightly pretentious imagery. It is a pity, as this film could have been just as effective a rumination on life, love and loss as Pixar’s ‘Up’, but unlike that film, it is never really allowed to take off.

'A Single Man' is currently playing to packed crowds at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

1 comment:

  1. I like your thoughts Rob...i still havnt seen Up so i cant compare!

    but i have to say that the visual style and some of the 'heavy handed' filmic techniques that turned u off the film had the opposite effect for me!....i do agree what some were either stereotypical and/or pretentious but i thought they were simply so well done that i was struck by how damn cool the film looked! and because this i was able to react to it on a more emtional level without the need for a particularly strong narrative drive...i think ultimately it is a visual film and not narrative film...but the reason i liked it so muh is that Ford had an idea and vision and stuck to it without compromise, such as Tarantino, Almodovar, Van Sant etc.

    maybe we should show Up and A Single Man as double feature?...have a good all round evening then!