If the 1950s usually get conjured up as a period of social rigidity and conformism, the early 1960s are a period of changes and the anxieties that came with them. Whether on television’s much-heralded “Mad Men” or Oscar Best Picture nominee “An Education,” the years between Kennedy’s election and the assassination that cut his term short are riddled with lingering concerns about both society’s new directions and the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Director Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” is a beautiful and sublimely artistic meditation of a soul close to personal collapse in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Colin Firth stars as closeted homosexual professor George Falconer, who is struggling to get over the accidental death of longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode).
Ford’s film, co-adapted with David Scearce from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is an immensely crafted and observed film that delicately works stylish cinematic tricks against subtle emotional moments that emerge from the tremendous work of each actor in the ensemble.
“A Single Man” rests largely on British character actor Colin Firth’s capable shoulders. Firth, Oscar-nominated for his performance, gives George a pervasive sense of mourning and insurmountable grief not from a series of exteriorized breakdowns or heavy ruminations about alienation, but in small shifts of gesture, posture and delivery.
Looking aged and worn, Firth expertly builds a character desperate to appear strong, a gay man trying to hide the tracks of his lifestyle and his broken spirit simultaneously.
Julianne Moore, in only a few scenes, provides expert counterpoint to George as Charley, his broken-down, alcoholic best friend and occasional lover. Sharing a dinner party that feels more like a futile exercise than genuine connection, the two are companions in misery.
And while it’s resonant acting that anchors the film, first-time director Tom Ford brings a stable of tricks and palpable enthusiasm for visual design to the film. He and cinematographer Eduard Grau enjoy playing with degrees of color saturation in the film. When George is forlorn, colors drain into depressing grays heavy in grain and harsh lighting.
Conversely, when he experiences something beautiful and begins to feel compassion for the world around him — even for a fleeting moment — the shots explode with depths of rich color and hue.
“A Single Man” is very much about perception and identification. On top of using the camera’s placement and lighting to encourage the spectator to share George’s view of the world, editor Joan Sobel consistently uses jump cuts to create a jagged, blurred sense of space and time.
While disorienting at times, this editing has a deeper purpose. “A Single Man” bleeds both between memory and reality and also between fleeting moments of observation and lingering examinations, and this widely variant editing allows us to fully grasp how George sees certain things.
On top of that, pulsing strings courtesy of Abel Korzeniowski’s rapturous score and period design that drips with detail make the film feel overwhelming with its encompassing perspective.
If “A Single Man” feels slightly artificial in its reliance on a full spectrum of cinematographic technique, it is nevertheless an adventurous and consistently stunning headlong plunge into how characterization and emotion can find visual embodiment.
And importantly, it is a veiled political work, where the Cuban Missile Crisis is always in the background, its threat of total destruction a complement to George’s threat of personal, self-inflicted destruction.
Tom Ford has crafted an ambitious and beautifully realized artistic film. It seizes on both our fascination with deconstructing our culture in order to better understand it, and also deconstructing ourselves in order to momentarily grapple with our complex human condition.