Toronto: Tom Ford's A Single Man
Thu Sep 17 2009
Some titles attract buzz—manufactured, earned or what have you—and when the buzz comes, you go. A Single Man picked up an acting award for Colin Firth last week at Venice; it also landed a distributor in the Weinsteins mere hours ago, who added a second Toronto press screening and stoked the fire. For the record, I was already planning on seeing it, not just because I'm exquisitely attuned to microchanges in hotness, but because the movie is the first by fashion designer Tom Ford and I like to see those kinds of professional leaps. Since the film is superstylish and set largely in 1962, people are crying Mad Men (many critics are swooning). But a better comparison might be something like Far from Heaven, which swaddled a tragic, pre-lib gay story in affecting melodrama. The clash isn't wholly successful.
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Christopher Isherwood's 1964 source novel is an L.A. classic: an oblique picture of the city—the Santa Monica beach, the hazy sunsets, the manicured campuses—seen through the eyes of a closeted English professor who privately mourns the recent, accidental death of his much-younger lover. (In real life, Isherwood had a complex relationship with Don Bachardy that lasted 40 years, documented in the recent Chris & Don.) At the end of the day, George, the main character, plans to kill himself; the tone of Isherwood's writing is conversational yet darkly sour, capturing a quiet loneliness.
Ford, meanwhile, won't ever be confused for a quiet director. His suits may be cleanly cut (and you can't help but love the clothes here), but his cinematic tendencies are loud loud loud: arpeggiating strings, slo-mo underwater cavorting and a totally fetishized color palette. George (the fully committed Firth) lives in a gray world; cue the subtly denatured color palette interrupted by "happier" memories in vibrant hues. As the day passes and George lets some feeling into his life, the movie launches into a dreamlike space, especially during one borderline-ridiculous scene in a pink-lit parking lot with a huge Psycho poster screaming down at the flirtation between George and a random hot Spanish guy.
Will the intense power of Isherwood's written accomplishment be drowned out by such syrupy style, or will Ford's treatment actually amplify the experience for people? That's the question. As I mentioned, the clash of A Single Man is the same as that in Far from Heaven: It's got subject matter that's refreshingly honest, but everything gets dressed up in an aggressively retro manner. (Julianne Moore is even on hand as a doting expat neighbor who wishes George weren't "such a poof." She's very different than Isherwood's Charley.) There's great attention to decor, yet when Ford tries to take on a little topicality like the Cuban Missile Crisis, things get seriously awkward.
Ultimately, this is a gorgeous cast of actors—two students are especially distracting during one lecture—and a director who loves to have them walk around in unbuttoned pants. Firth's performance is full of emotion, transitioning from subtle rage to exuberant, wolfish rebirth; he's the real draw here. But there's been much better at the fest.