In an ideal world, every new movie could be consumed in a vacuum. It’s what I love about film festivals. There, I have the chance to watch movies without having read anything about them beforehand; no reviews, no box-office reports, maybe not even a list of movies the lead has been in previously. But most movie experiences aren’t like that. In the real world, I had read scores of reviews about Tom Ford’s A Single Man before I ever got the chance to see it myself, and as much as I didn’t want to, they influenced how I approached the movie.
Here’s what I had learned: Even from reviewers who generally liked it, A Single Man, about George Falconer (Colin Firth) who, mourning his lover Jim (Matthew Goode), comtemplates suicide, was met with a specific strain of criticism. Many critics basically accused it of trying to divert attention from its emotional core by painting a almost pedantically precise and visually stunning portait of life in the American middle class in the early 1960s. At the very least, it was accused of letting such visual artistry getting in the way of the broader story. Other people may be able to completely ignore such criticism when watching a movie, but I’m not. If anything, it speaks to what a great movie A Single Man is, that it still found it to be absolutely excellent.
In a way, I would have hoped that these critics hadn’t known the director of the movie when they reviewed it.* I get a sense that, perhaps without even thinking about it, they somehow set out looking for signs that Tom Ford, Man of Aesthetics, was imposing himself on the movie. For another first-time director, this may have been hailed as a surprisingly original visual style and proof that he has a good grasp of how to make the aesthetics reinforce a movie’s message, but for many critics, here it’s a sign of the exact opposite. It’s like they want to ask if he only knows how to make movies the Tom Ford way without acknowledging that they are in fact criticizing something that they might have hailed if it had not originated from his particualr vision. Tom Ford is not imitating anything or anyone, he’s creating something new out of our previous perceptions of how the 1960s is supposed to look.
And even if the movie hadn’t worked emotionally or narratively (which it does), such a criticism risks reducing some of the absolutely riveting performances in this movie. Colin Firth, one of the most versatile male actor in current British cinema, paints a truly gripping portrait of the grief-stricken George. In one of the directorial choices most often commented on, and not seldomly criticized, Ford shifts seamlessly between several color filters, to change the mood and perception of a particular scene. Retrospective scenes with George and his lover, and also between George and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who takes a particular interest in him, are pratically glowing with color and life, but if the conversation takes a different turn they may just as quickly return to the default style of grainy blandness. Leaving aside that this in my opinion actually adds more, not less, depth to these scenes, they would not have worked had it not been for Firth’s immediate presence. When we are able to read a subtext into these scenes that some may find a little to transparent (like George’s lecture about fear of minorities and how it’s impossible to know who people really are; playing off our knowledge that he’s gay), it’s because the acting is so fine-tuned that we don’t even really notice that it’s there.
This whole discussion reminds of the critical reception for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008), another underrated movie written off by many critics as an emotionally cold dissection of 1950s style. It’s OK if you guys think both of these movies lack emotional depth, although I disagree fervently. But why do I get the sense that it’s the aesthetics themselves that are the problem? I don’t know, of course, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if the critics who are criticizing A Single Man and Revolutionary Road do not at the same time relish the visual virtuosity of Mad Men (a show I like very much). Again, it comes down to a question of whether you think Tom Ford connects the emotional dots or not, but why have I yet to see a passionate defense of A Single Man on Mad Men grounds? Is this really such a cheap comparison?
In an illuminating recent opinion piece for Attitude, Mark Smith argued that Tom Ford and the production company on purpose had undersold the extent to which A Single Man is a gay story, and this may in part explain why some people have found the emotional core of the story hard to grasp. This movie is a lot of things, but I agree with Mark that more than anything it’s story about how a man is denied the the right to mourn a loved one in the same publicly accepted way that is afforded to straight people. Without losing sight of Colin Firth’s indispensable contribution to making these scenes work, two scenes in particular stand out for me. The first is a scene early in the film, in which George receives a phone call from Jim’s cousin, telling him that Jim has been killed in a car accident. We watch as George struggle to stay composed as he takes in the horrifying news, but when he is, essence, told that Jim’s family doesn’t want him there at the funeral (‘It’s just for family,’ the cousin intones), George is at the breaking point.
The second scene is between George and his life-long friend and once-girlfriend Charley (the always mesmerizing Julianne Moore). Charley, a fun-loving but self-centered woman who lives and breathes nostalgia, asks George if he ever thinks about what could have been between the two of them, “having a real relationship and kids”. When George, almost stunned, asks what she meant by that, Charley rubs it in even further by suggesting that his relationship with Jim was “really just a substitute for something else”. Even if Charley didn’t mean anything by (and judging from the way the tension is resolved, I believe she didn’t), it’s a painful scene, because it again underlines how George’s feelings are considered out of the ordinary and thus not really worthy. It further drives home Smith’s point, that to take the gay angle out of A Single Man not only is to ignore a central plot line, but also to drain it of much of its emotional power.
To play down the gay thing also means playing down the relationship between George and Kenny, the young student whose interest represent one of the few bright spots in George’s life. Having seen the movie three times, but never having read the novel, I’m still not sure whether Kenny is straight, gay or something else, but George’s sense that Kenny can see through him is what drives their relationship. Kenny is played intelligently by Nicholas Hoult (it took me a few minutes to get used to him speaking with an American accent, though), and all the little signals and the things left unsaid between them brings real ambiguity and unpredictability to the story. Kenny’s beauty is almost intimidating to George, a man so deeply grief-stricken that he, until Kenny comes along, seems to cling more to the idea of suicide than to a reluctant will to survive (as seen in a scene where George plans to shoot himself, only to find the position too uncomfortable to go through with it). That said, although Hoult is certainly beautiful enough to fit right in with the overall gorgeousness of the movie as a whole, it never feels like he’s some sort of accessory. Even if Ford’s intentions in casting him had not run deeper than that, his performance is lively enough to transcend it by a mile.
Unfortunately, the Oscar Academy seemed to agree with the critics. I suspect that Colin Firth was a runner-up for Best Actor, but the movie wasn’t even nominated in the Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress or Best Original Score categories. I’m not sure if it was Tom Ford or critics who ended up standing in the way of A Single Man, but if you ask my whether I think the experiment with ten Best Picture nominees was a success, I’d be tempted to say no, because it was not nominated. That’s how good it is.
* Many critics make Ford’s background in design an explicit point in their reviews.
Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “[A]side from what some of the actors bring to it, “A Single Man” is less a finished, fleshed-out movie than it is a mood board, one of those collages of images and colors that designers sometimes use to help define and fine-tune the vibe they’re going after in their creative ventures.”
Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “[Ford] hasn’t fully learned how to work inside the moving image plane, a space in which people and objects must be dynamically engaged rather than prettily arranged, as they occasionally are here. And at times his taste seems too impeccable, art-directed for a maximum sale, as in a black-and-white flashback that brings to mind a perfume advertisement.”
Lou Lumenick, New York Post: “The directorial debut of designer Tom Ford is art-directed within an inch of its life (…)”
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: “Who’s in charge here, for heaven’s sake—a fashion designer? Well, yes, for “A Single Man” is the first feature to be directed by Tom Ford. (…) The film is slowed by its own beauty (…)”
Scott Foundas, The Village Voice: “Too much is never enough for fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, whose debut feature flaunts its capital-A Artiness the way some Napoleonic gym rats flaunt their overdeveloped musculature. (…) [He has an] affection for art direction over actual direction, and for extravagant surfaces over the lower depths of meaning and emotion.”
Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer: [A]dapted from the Christopher Isherwood novel by fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford, (…) A Single Man is too beautiful by half.”