Tom Ford's A Single Man is one of the best films of 2009. Like the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man of the same year, or like Raging Bull or Jackie Brown, it's a mesmerizing, meditative, poetic, absolutely authentic character study painted in lavish detail.
The film opens with a vision of death which appropriately hangs over the rest of the film, leaving some questions to consider and some persuasively effective suspense.
Also as in A Serious Man, we are watching hours in the crisis of one man's life as major events change things quickly and dramatically around him. Both main characters are college professors, but instead of a Jewish teacher of mathematics in the sixties in Minnesota, the lead in A Single Man is George (Colin Firth, absolutely astonishing), a gay British teacher of English in the early sixties in Santa Monica.
And instead of major crises at work and his wife leaving him as in Serious, George takes on a single day, some time after the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode, very good). A Single Man doesn't have as complex a plot as the other film, but as complicated emotions.
I read the book. by Christopher Isherwood, years ago, and haven't reread it since, but would. I chiefly remember its being beautiful and melancholy, and the same could be said of the film, so, for me, the tone was captured perfectly. Tom Ford was the director of the House of Gucci, so I expected the film to have great clothes, and it does. But every detail also is exquisite, from period cars, clothes, attitudes, hairstyles and interiors to how they are lit, shot and shown.
A lot of the film could be silent as we simply watch George moving step by step through his appointed rounds. It's the outside view of exactly what's going on inside of George, through his actions and moving across Firth's face.
George is an aesthete, a man of great appetites and world-weariness, and he loves his vices, his beautiful house, his beautiful lover, his beautiful dog, his beautiful neighbors and students and Santa Monica. He loves his world-weariness and even his melancholy. He and his point of view are absurd and wonderful, beautiful, very like life.
Besides George, all of the other characters are minor, but effectively played and incorporated. Julianne Moore plays Charley, a longtime friend from London with a deep crush on George. She's very good. I expected to be annoyed by her British accent, but she pulls off a kind of gone-L.A. hybrid which is just right. Nicholas Hoult is excellent as Kenny, one of George's students who's nearly as persistent and clever as Clive Park in A Serious Man. Jon Kortajarena is good as Carlos, a hustler who bumps into George at the liquor store.
A Single Man is gorgeous, with not much wasted. Colin Firth's Oscar-nominated performance alone makes it worth seeking out, but the film is of a solid piece. The book is lovely, and the movie may be just as good or better. Tom Ford makes a major directing debut here.
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