Deborah Ross

Devastating grief

A Single Man /> Nationwide, 12A

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A Single Man

Nationwide, 12A

A Single Man is noted fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut feature film and while it is distractingly over-designed — every table lamp looks as if it had its own personal stylist — it is also a true and proper account of bereavement, grief, loss and loneliness. I can see I haven’t made it sound like a fun-packed, feel-good night at the cinema, and it isn’t, but its depth of feeling is so powerful and commanding it’s almost bruising. Heavens, I’ve made it sound even less fun now. You know, this is a hard film to recommend, because it’s so sad, and a hard film to not recommend, because it’s so good about what it is like to be so sad. A tricky one or, to put it another way: unlike It’s Complicated, this rather is.

Ford financed this film, produced it, directed it and adapted the screenplay from the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name but did not write the ‘theme toon’, as far as I am aware. Set in California in 1962, our single man is George Falconer (Colin Firth), a middle-aged, gay, British professor of English at an American university who has been struggling to find any meaning in his life since his long-term lover, Jim, died in a car crash eight months previously. George dresses in beautiful suits, lives in a beautiful, modernist glass and wood house with those beautifully styled lamps and drives a beautiful shiny Mercedes with beautiful shiny chrome fenders...but? But he is in such astounding pain that ‘even waking up hurts’. He sees the past in flashbacks and feels he has no future. This is a day in his life; a day that will end, we assume, in George shooting himself. We’re shown the revolver in Act One, and you’re only ever shown a revolver in Act One if there’s a plan for it in Act Three. It’s just one of those Hollywood rules, like a cough never being insignificant. (If, in the extremely unlikely instance a revolver does not reappear in Act Three, or a cough does not develop into something full-blown, nasty and fatal, you have every right to report the incident to The Hollywood Rules Board, where appropriate action will be taken.)

Firth has been Oscar-nominated for his performance as George, and it is a miraculous performance: subtle beyond belief and yet absolutely heartbreaking. He does very little, and sometimes nothing at all, and yet we know this grief has undone him, can almost taste his longing and loneliness. In an early scene, when George receives the news of his lover’s death over the telephone, and is told he can’t attend the memorial service, I don’t think he moves a single facial muscle, and yet we know the light in his world has been switched off. He does have a friend, Charley (a sort of mad Ann-Margret character played by the brilliant Julianne Moore), but her friendship is not what he needs right now, just as his friendship is not what she needs right now. She is a drunken, needy divorcee, with whom he had a sexual relationship in his youth, and who still thinks something can be salvaged. The long, gin-saturated evening they spend together before they both leave empty-handed isn’t a scene you will easily forget. George’s only hope is Kenny, a preciously flirtatious student who is trying to decide on his own sexuality. Ford has said the film is about our true selves and our false selves, about beautiful outsides concealing insides that are total messes. Probably, he’s actually thinking about handbags, but it does rather work here too.

This is an extremely stylised film, as I suppose it has to be, as there is no real plot to otherwise sustain it. Almost every shot is a claustrophobic close-up — pores; eyes; nostrils — while the soundtrack is fantastically heightened. You can hear the ice crack in the glass of gin, even the sound of a blink as lash hits skin. The world is flat and grey unless George momentarily emerges from his misery, at which point lips pillow up and pinken, cheeks adopt a rosy glow, and everything floods with colour. I can see some might find this irritating, might want to plead for less art and more direction, but I was OK with it. It makes it Ford’s film in a way that, for example, Sam Taylor-Wood didn’t make Nowhere Boy hers. This is an impressive debut from which I am still reeling a little, and Firth’s performance is astounding. Shame there is no wet-shirt scene, but there you are. You can’t have everything, I suppose.