Review: A Single Man (2009)

A Single Man

Rating

Director

Tom Ford

Screenplay

Tom Ford, David Scearce (Novel: Christopher Isherwood)

Length

1h 39m

Starring

Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena, Paulette Lamori, Ryan Simpkins, Ginnifer Goodwin, Teddy Sears, Paul Butler, Aaron Sanders, Aline Weber

MPAA Rating

R

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Review

Fashion designer Tom Ford made his first foray into cinema with this passionately observed character piece starring Colin Firth based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man might be a drama set in the past, but its observations are as important to the present as anything more modern.

George (Firth), a depressed college professor, finds life unbearable after the death of his lover (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. As flashes of that evening pass through his mind, he decides to end his own life. As the people around him seek their own kind of validation, George cannot seem to fathom life with such unbearable pain.

A young prostitute (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) might help give George the kind of joie de vivre he thinks he can never have again, but will he come to that realizations soon enough to stop what he plans to do?

Firth is astonishingly good. Those who’ve seen him popular films like Bridget Jones’ Diary, The King’s Speech, or Kingsman: The Secret Service may appreciate him as an actor, but won’t have the deep appreciation for his work in this picture. In spite of an Oscar for The King’s Speech, Firth is leagues beyond that performance with this one, exploring the frailty, pain, and societal pressure experienced by gay men in the 1950s. His impressive career might make him very familiar to audiences, but few of them will have seen this film, where he easily gives perhaps his career-best performance.

Goode and Hoult are solid in smaller roles, but the actor most capable of upstaging Firth is Julianne Moore. She is terrific as his best friend Charley, a divorcée who has passionate feelings for him, but doesn’t have the guts to act on them. Her inability to express herself until the worst possible moment is a fitting embodiment of the repression of that period. She also knows how to avoid stealing scenes from Firth, which allows both actors to breathe and create mesmerizing work.

Ford’s directorial debut was an auspicious one. A Single Man is artistically framed, keenly observed, and filled to overflowing with subtlety and nuance. His is a film that might not reach as many people as it should, but which is no less a monumental achievement. That he’s only directed one film since, it’s hard to know what kind of career he can build in Hollywood, especially considering his more notable line of work, but if this and his 2016 follow-up (Nocturnal Animals) are any indication, he could become one of our finest directors. He has to keep going, though.

A Single Man is one of myriad period dramas set in a time when homosexuality was known, but ignored. It explores the difficulty gay men and women faced in that era and how hard it made it for them to be themselves out of fear of being exposed. This film doesn’t quite dig into that concept very deeply, certainly not as deeply as Todd Haynes has managed both in 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2015’s Carol, but it lingers in the mind long enough to profoundly affect any who see it.

Review Written

June 8, 2020

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