A Single Man – Existentialism never looked so good

Laurie Martin 18 February 2010

Laurie Martin is delighted with the world’s first feature-length perfume commercial

A Single Man- 1hr 39mins, 12A


From the catwalk to the big screen: an unconventional leap for debutant director Tom Ford – primarily a fashion designer – who finds his feet on firm ground in this mesmeric and poignant film.

A Single Man is set in 60s America, and follows George Falconer on one day, interspersed by non-linear flashbacks, as he is continually haunted by the death of his ex-lover Jim. The film, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, depicts George, an English professor, as he comes to terms with the futility of existence in a world that doesn’t understand him, and his decision to take his own life.

Colin Firth plays the suicidal bachelor, whose existential abandonment is tempered only through superficiality. His nice car, sleek suit, and stable job are merely statements of a falsely acquired identity: the modern glass house he lives in is a metaphor for the frailty of appearance.

The film explores the existential paradoxes of exterior appearance and inward reality, underscored by the politically charged issue of homosexuality in ’60s America. Characters find it impossible to truly relate to one another.

The climax of George’s narrative sees his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), herself a neurotic alcoholic, state that ‘what you and Jim had wasn’t real’. This deeply moving moment frames the central theme of the film: in a contentious world of uncertainty, we are essentially alone.

Firth, who has been nominated for an Oscar for the role, is brilliant.

The opening scene is perhaps one of the most moving of the whole film, as Firth’s voice-over meditates on the absurdity of his day-to-day existence. It is refreshing to see him finally shrug off the burden of the typecast bumbling lover, and get his teeth into a real role.

Indeed, there are a few revelations in this film. The first is that Tom Ford – famous for turning round the fortunes of Gucci – does a bloody good job. OK: it’s a two-hour perfume commercial, but a cracking perfume commercial at that imbued with real characters and great cinematographic panache. For a debut, it does nothing wrong, and a good deal right.

The second is that Nicholas Hoult can act. He plays one of George’s students, who seems a little too interested in George’s sex life; after which an intriguing relationship ensues. He’s gone a long way since About a Boy. Granted, the part is small, but his mysterious portrayal of an experimental teenager makes their onscreen chemistry wholly believable, and genuinely quite moving.

A lot has been written about the film’s overly clinical tone, and it is easy to criticise it on these grounds. Ford’s eye for style and minimalism is far too prominent in the film, to the point that the sets become so unrealistic, and every character so attractive, that actually it loses the incandescent charm of raw beauty, every shot becoming sickly and stale. There are a few moments in the film when George is told he ‘looks ill’. If Ford insists in beautifying every detail, moments like these become comically absurd. It’s an odd criticism to wager: but the film is just too damn beautiful.

Ford seems to owe a lot to directors like Anthony Minghella. The obvious close collaboration between Ford and the soundtrack composers Abel Korzeniowski & Shigeru Umebayashi is similar to the pains Minghella took to retain a fundamental link between a film’s mood and themes, and the music underscoring them. A Single Man’s score at times says more than the characters on screen; urgent and arresting, the string quartet pushes the film on and on towards what we think is the inevitable end.

Ford faced a rather bashful Mark Kermode on The Culture Show last week in the build up to the film’s release. Kermode appeared just a bit sceptical that all the flamboyance of Ford’s self-financed debut was founded more in public image than in artistic integrity. For me, the film speaks for itself.

Ford will hopefully make more films. There is a raw talent that, admittedly, needs the glamour chic scourged with makeup remover. But a film that is beautiful, and I mean incredibly shot and produced, is as good a starting point as any.

A Single Man is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse

Laurie Martin