Venice 09: A Single Man
Posted on Friday September 11, 2009, 13:33 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
Tom Ford's A Single Man was on my to-see list but I wasn't expecting much. Tom Ford, if you don't know, is a big noise in menswear and the man who saved Gucci, so I figured his directing debut would look like an aftershave commercial: lots of nude male buttocks and billowing drapes. Such things do appear in A Single Man, but I was surprised to see how good and involving the central drama was. All the performances are note-perfect, and although the film is not likely to cross over to the masses (it's not just lightly gay-themed, it's gaymungous), I can't help thinking that it might be the dark horse come awards time – perhaps not for Ford, but certainly for its two leads, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore – while the film is also a showcase for the talents of two more Brits, the excellent Matthew Goode and, more surprisingly, Nicolas Hoult, the grown-up child star of About A Boy. If the Brokeback Mountain audience supports it, it will surely have a distinguished life, and if it gets that lift, maybe it will score a deserved hit with more broad-minded sections of the public.
It's based on a story by Christopher Isherwood, which, I gather, is written as an internal monologue documenting a day on the life of a gay English professor after the death of his longterm partner. There's a bit of voiceover, yes, but the most immediately surprising aspect of Ford's film is how little Ford resorts to it. Instead, it begins with a dream sequence in which George (Colin Firth) finds the body of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode) by the side of a wrecked car and kisses the dead man gently on the lips. Waking up, George recalls the day he first heard the awful news and, missing Jim terribly, begins making plans for his last day of life, which he believes will end with him putting a loaded gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Things don't quite go according to plan, however. First there's the fey, pretty-boy college kid Kenny (Nicolas Hoult), who appears to be stalking him, then there's Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his boozy old flame who drowns her loneliness in gin and harbours an unrequited love for the now exclusively gay George.
The clothes and set dressing are, as you'd imagine, sensational, and Ford's directing style is remarkably assured. He has a few tyro tics that can be a little irritating (there are lots of close-ups of eyes, and a bit too much slow motion), but if this had turned up at Sundance it would have been greeted as the second coming. Style-wise, there are echoes of Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin and even Pedro Almodovar (Wong Kar-Wei was pointed out to me afterwards, and I can see that too), but Ford doesn't rely on style alone. At the heart of this extraordinary film is Firth's simply wonderful performance; economical and heartfelt, it captures the dark thoughts of a haunted man but does so with wit and charm. Moore, too, is excellent as the British ex-pat party girl who's miles away from home; Goode is immaculate as the George's much-missed life partner and Hoult is a revelation as Kenny. The more I think about it, the more I like it, and it will be interesting to see what Ford does next. One thing's for sure: it won't be Transformers 3, and thank God for that.