"For What It's Firth"
I've been joking that any movie directed by former Gucci designer Tom Ford would be entirely black screen and gold letters—I mean, look at that poster.
And the potential danger of the movie with ties so close to the fashion industry is that it's aesthetic will be design-oriented rather than story-oriented. It'll look great, but will it communicate? Will it tell a story, or will it evoke a mystique, like those oblique Ridley Scott perfume ads? Is it going to be one of those movies where the sets overwhelm the people dwarfed by them? Will it be accessible to the average movie-goer, or will it only appeal to "Project: Runway" addicts? The film has drawn some adoring praise from the East Coast (where everyone is six degrees from being bitch-slapped by a Vogue employee), but on the West Coast, where fashion is defined by Dockers in the South and plaid shirts in the North, the reviews have been skeptical ("Well, it looks nice...but...").
The film could be as empty...as a fantasy.
That's why the first hour is a tough slog, precious with "just-so" framing,* a set-designer's aesthetic that belies story logic—he's an English professor living in an impeccable glass house with a house-keeper, drives a BMW with wood trim and dresses like a tweedy James Bond—and a cutesy color trick, going through his life in a muted drained palette and when dreaming, fantasizing, or otherwise engaged, the screen blooms to full-color. Editing is somewhat nightmarish, with conversations split between full-face angles and cold side-shots that feel like a slap in the face. And every man is rakish thin with fine tailoring, the women in overdone bee-hives with not a hair out of place (it's set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis). All the people are beautiful but impenetrable, surface creations only skin-deep. A sunning memory staged at California's Vasquez Rock seems more about the landscape and not about the figures in relation to it.
But Colin Firth as the protagonist George Falconer, even though evoking Michael Caine's "Alfie," keeps putting a human edge on the cut-glass sterility of Ford's images. Even when it seems Ford's editing or poor mixing of the narration works against him, Firth rises above and makes Falconer a seething interior in the icy exterior. Falconer, eight months from the death of his lover (Matthew Goode) in a car accident, decides that today will be the last day of his life—he teaches, cleans out his desk, puts his affairs and funeral clothes in order, never giving a trace to the public world what his intentions are. It's a great performance—Firth doesn't even look like himself, usually a bit more slouchy and unkempt—and might even turn off the fans so impressed with his TV Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice." And he pulls off some tough scenes without disposing of the mask of civility that Falconer shows the world, the "invisibleness" with which he strolls through life. Even a scene of suicide preparation becomes a comic display of interior finickiness that elicits morbid laughs with the psychic horror.
And then, suddenly, Ford stops being a stylist and turns into a director. The facades fade away, and it becomes two actors acting: Firth, on top of his game and a young actor, hired for his boyish good looks, but not much in the way of acting chops. And, instead of showing his cleverness with the camera or the design or the color scheme, it's just Ford the writer-director telling a story, making you feel it, bridging gaps and universality to a dramatic situation. Where he makes Falconer's encounter with former lover Charlotte (Julianne Moore) cruel and hysteric, the late-night encounter with one of his students avoids the snickering possibilities and turns human and decent. The hair (and people), no longer shellacked in place, but recognizable in their actions and motivations.
At one point, Falconer states that his New Year's Resolution is to "let go of the past, completely, entirely and forever."
It's only when Ford drops his own baggage that "A Single Man" becomes good film-making and good story-telling. The director becomes less concerned with Tom Ford, the designer-label, and about what he is conveying, not what he is photographing.
Consider this, then, a "student" film, with its pretentious notions calling attention to the artifice until it can concentrate on the art. It makes one anticipate the next film, the one that will fulfill the spark of talent of which "A Single Man" provides a tantalizing glimpse.
"A Single Man" is a Rental, with much promise for the future.
* Hey, I love a well-composed shot, I truly do. But what is it conveying? Why that angle, and no other—why put the edges there? In "A Single Man," it's there to make it "look good."