Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Single Man Has Mixed Success

A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
Running Time: 99 minutes
Originally Released: December 11, 2009 (limited)

* * * (out of four)

At one point in the film A Single Man, the main character, George, says something to the effect that the only times he feels truly alive are those in which he really connects with another person. Something similar can be said of the film itself, which resonates with the audience only occasionally, but shows great promise when it does.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, an English professor in 1962 whose lover of 16 years died in a car crash just eight months earlier. Since losing Jim (Matthew Goode), George has become something of a robot, waking, dressing, lecturing, and living each day as if by rote memorization. A Single Man centers on just one such day in George’s life, though it is really about more than that. The events of George’s day are frequently interrupted by flashbacks, typically because George himself is reflecting back on the last decade and a half of his life. It’s a life he plans to end, suicide providing a solution to the meaningless monotony that has replaced his once romantic life. As George attends to his daily duties whilst simultaneously preparing for his ultimate departure from the world, he has a series of brief interactions—with his maid, with an English-department secretary, with a colleague, with the little girl that lives next door, with a male prostitute—all of which are fairly innocuous, though some prove more meaningful than others. Then there are the prolonged encounters, one of which is with Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s longtime, equally-lonesome female friend, who takes comfort both in alcohol and in momentarily pretending that maybe somehow George can love her. Another encounter—a series of them, actually—is with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a student whose unwavering attention during class may be due to an interest in more than just English.

Firth turns in a first-rate performance as a man suffering deeply on the inside, but so rehearsed at keeping his professional and socially-acceptable composure that no one blinks an eye. Hoult, whom some will remember as the awkward 12-year-old who seeks friendship from Hugh Grant in About a Boy, is also terrific. Everyone else plays their roles just as their supposed to, but they feel of secondary importance to director and co-writer Tom Ford, who puts more effort into infusing the film with a certain aesthetic quality. It turns out Ford is a fashion designer, with A Single Man being his first foray into filmmaking in a capacity not specifically related to clothing. It shows, as much of the film is a prime example of style over substance. It doesn’t help that so much of the style Ford employs is of the ostentatious variety. One particularly invasive example is the way in which Ford either heightens or lowers the intensity of color on the screen in order to reflect George’s mood. This could have been an effective technique had it been handled delicately, remaining almost imperceptible to the audience. Instead, Ford bathes the screen in Technicolor vibrancy the very moment George strikes up any pleasant conversation whatsoever. The change is so abrupt, you’ll think something is wrong with whatever copy of the film you happen to be watching at the time. Only on repeat occurrences do you realize that the sudden blushing of color is intentional. In my eyes, this demonstrates a weakness on the part of the filmmakers, who clue you into George’s emotions with all the subtlety of a flashing sign that says “George is happy now!” Such steps shouldn’t be necessary. I should be able to tell George’s mood has lifted without the characters onscreen suddenly looking as if they’ve overdosed on beta-carotene.

The style problems don’t end there. The film’s score, by composer Abel Korzeniowski, is heavy-handed, a melodic melodrama in-and-of itself, complete with stinging violin solos that, while calling to mind certain dramatic music of the 60s, strikes modern ears as garish. Then there is the dialogue itself, which sometimes sounds a bit too much like it was lifted from a novel. Granted, A Single Man is adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, and we should expect that much of what is said on camera is taken verbatim from the pages of Isherwood’s book. My problem is when it is all too apparent that one or another element of a movie has been transplanted from elsewhere. Movies and books (and stage plays, for that matter) each have a unique feel, and sometimes what works for one medium feels stilted or out of place in the other. There are flickering instances of that in this film.

One gets the feeling that A Single Man is exactly what the filmmakers wanted it to be, which I suppose qualifies it as a success. It’s not quite what filmgoers want, at least not consistently and not on all accounts, but there are moments of grandeur that make the film worthwhile overall. When George is first informed of his lover’s death, then told that he is not welcome at the funeral, we seethe that George must respond so politely. By the social politics of the time, George is not allowed to grieve, and Ford deftly conveys this by drowning out George’s lamentations with a rainstorm. We don’t hear a sound from George, who wails alone, even as he collapses into Charley’s arms, the only person to whom he can turn. Yes, A Single Man has its moments. In the end, however, the title of the film proves more than poignant; it is prophetic. For, it is indeed a single man—namely, Colin Firth—who redeems this film.

No comments:

Post a Comment