At the Arthouse
Tom Ford makes impressive directorial debut with A Single Man
In making his first film, A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford was not afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool. The film is based on Christopher Isherwood’s groundbreaking novel of the same name. It was an important book because Isherwood’s character, George, was portrayed as both a gay man, subject to all the vicissitudes of gay life circa 1962, and as an everyman worried about declining social standards and the fear-mongering politics of the day.
Isherwood managed to connect George’s personal, specifically gay angst with the existential philosophy of the times. Surprisingly, Ford manages to combine the aesthetics you would expect him to provide with a generous helping of deep thought. Thanks largely to the understated and deeply satisfying performance by Colin Firth as George, Ford comes surprisingly close to hitting his ambitious target.
The story is pretty simple. George, a London-born English professor at a Los Angeles university, has decided to end his life because he’s so heartbroken over the loss of his great love, Jim (Matthew Goode), who has died in a car wreck. But George, who complains that his students have no sense of manners or style, is determined to achieve a tidy death. He spends what he plans to be his final day attending to the details of his life: setting out the suit he wants to be buried in (and leaving instructions to have his tie tied in a Windsor knot), leaving out the pertinent insurance papers, hiding some cash where his housekeeper will find it, complimenting an English department secretary on her beauty, and so on.
He also stops to buy some bullets, and this is when some surprising comedy kicks in. The gun-store clerk tries to sell him an extra pistol “for the little lady." Politely declining, George goes home to rehearse his suicide. He lies on his bed but can’t get the pillows right. He worries about the mess he’ll leave and, gun in mouth, zips himself up in a sleeping bag. That doesn’t work either. His very British obsession with decorum, and fear of being ridiculous, combined with Firth’s very British style of under-playing his emotions, makes for several good laughs.
I suppose that’s where the film wobbles a little. After these scenes, the momentum toward death that Ford had achieved is weakened, and you begin to notice Ford’s own obsession with visual detail to the detriment of his story.
That said, A Single Man is a very impressive debut for Ford. He has given Colin Firth his richest role to date, and Firth responds with what may be a signature performance.