Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Single Man

How about talking about a movie one of us liked for a change? I was actually fortunate enough to see one recently. Actually, it was just before I watched Up in the Air. On paper, I might think the film was bound for failure. It's a first-time director, Tom Ford, who is a well known fashion designer. He uses some narration, color filter changes, and flashbacks (black & white ones, no less), to give a character study adaptation for one of the more lauded novels to focus on gay themes. Sign me up, right? Well, to my surprise, I think almost everything paid off for me in this film.

The story takes place in 1960s Los Angeles. It is a day in the life of George Falconer, a gay English professor. George appears to have decided upon committing suicide after his soul mate has died in a car crash. Through flashbacks we get glimpses of what were clearly the happiest times in George's life. However, since Jim's death, George has slowly been drowning in feelings of despair, meaninglessness, and helplessness. You would never guess it, though, as George seems to be the epitome of a well-adjusted man. He's a class act, if ever there was one. Beneath that perception lies one of the most tormented souls of recent cinema. And so this day George has resolved to change his life....by ending it.

Going into the film, I was armed with my patented "I don't buy it." There is a lot to convey in this one character. The range of seemingly contradictory emotion were bound to create inconsistencies in the character. However, actor Collin Firth inexplicably nails it. Even though the premise is perhaps incredibly simple, and as old as Romeo and Juliet, through Firth's performance it comes alive, almost as though I had never knew it. It's truly heartbreaking. Director Ford shows incredible restraint by letting Firth take his time. There are long shots of Firth that many other directors would have spliced up into several angles, or just cut short. Here, though, we get a chance to see some very subtle and powerful acting.

What about those other things?
-The narration is used very sparsely, and for me it worked to underscore that George is, or at least feels, fundamentally alone in this world. I think when some directors are adapting a story with personal meaning for them, they feel as though they have to add some narration as almost an homage to the original story, whether or not it hurts the film. In this film, it works.

-Many of the shots of George when he's alone, are filtered to make everything seem especially drab. Then, when George encounters other people, and often from a first-person camera shot, the color saturation is changed so that the screen almost bursts with color. Again, here is something that could be merely a gimmick, but it works because it's used with a purpose. That purpose is to show the value of relationships. For as hard as George really wants to believe that he's alone, he really isn't. And those bursts of color almost serve as subconscious realization of that fact.

-Although we never get to see Jim in the present (perhaps...), we see moments of he and George's relationship through a series of flashbacks, which are show in black and white. Jim is portrayed by Matthew Goode - an underrated actor (see Match Point). Even though I'm generally not that picky about flashback use in films, I think they are used to good effect here. They seem like the natural reactions for a man who's decided to kill himself. He spends that day almost absorbed into memories of a time and person that made him exceedingly joyous.

One thing I didn't especially like was a speech about "fear," "power," and "minorities." The speech is in the book, but it's better written there, and a little too over the top in the film. Granted, it's worth remembering the speech in the context of 1960s America, which I may not have considered as much as I should have at the time.
Also, given the number of conventions I've mentioned, perhaps Ford should have picked one or two, instead of going all out. While they all worked for me, I could surely understand their being distracting for another viewer.

A Single Man is a very satisfying film. The acting by Collin Firth and Julianne Moore (who plays George's equally messed up friend) is pitch-perfect. The art direction is predictably beautiful. Tom Ford's eye for fashion and beauty places the camera in many visually appealing places. The variety of emotions are all genuinely portrayed, which makes empathizing with and sympathizing to George very easy. Overall, it's a character study of the most appealing kind for me - it shows a normal man, not some superhuman, and the vast variety of complexities that exist within him - that in fact exist within all of us.

PS - There is a great score from Abel Korzeniowski.
PPS - The college student in the film is an all-growed-up Nicholas Hoult (aka, the boy from About a Boy).

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