A Single Man has garnered Colin Firth his first Oscar nomination, and praise for fashion designer-turned movie director Tom Ford.
Too bad the film was overlooked as a best picture contender. This movie deserves your viewing for Firth's magnificent (and indeed Oscar-worthy) performance in a wrenching yet life affirming story of love and loss.
A Single Man is adapted from Christopher Isherwood's short novel about George Falconer (Firth), a gay British college professor who struggles to find meaning following the sudden death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash. Teaching at a small college in Los Angeles in 1962 in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, George plans to take his own life, seeking to escape the heartache and remembrance haunting him eight months after the accident.
The film follows George on his final day as he meticulously plans to end his life. We are taken on a series of encounters with those who color his decision: his closest friend and gal pal Charley (Julianne Moore), a Spanish street hustler, and an infatuated young male student who senses his pain and loneliness.
Writer-director Ford finely details the invisibility of gay life in post-War America, portraying a man who lives in a glass house but cannot be seen much less understood in a 1950s culture defined by conformity and gripped by fear.
Firth provides a masterful performance of grief locked in the closet, most notably when informed by phone that he is not invited to the "family-only" funeral of his lover.
The movie can be seen and appreciated within a sub-genre of films that may be described as "the cinema of beautiful death." My life has been enriched by such films, namely All That Jazz, American Beauty and, more recently, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly.
These stories, told through the magical powers of cinema, capture the twin truths of the human condition: loneliness and the search for meaning, and the often unseen beauty that surrounds us.
These films share in common a lead character (all men) suffering a mid-life crisis or facing an impending death. They grapple with life's worth in a suffocating setting -- white picket fence suburbia (American Beauty), a paralyzing "locked-in syndrome" (Diving Bell) or homophobia in early 1960s America (A Single Man).
All of these pained men are haunted by the past, drowning in the present, and drifting toward death. A Single Man opens with George sinking in water, much like we see the Jean-Dominique Bauby character sinking in a diving bell chamber, or watch the Bob Fosse character (All that Jazz) falling in mid-air to a circus net.
Along the way we witness each protagonist negotiate through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), as told through musical numbers in All that Jazz.
In the case of A Single Man, we observe a gay man unable to publicly mourn loss, thus denied closure and renewal. Firth's restrained voice-over narrative of his inner thoughts adds great poignancy to his predicament.
Some have criticized the film for being too art-directed and stylized by a fashion designer director. This frankly misses the point, as one's final day of remembering the past and seeing life before departing is well-suited to an idealized or hyper-real treatment. Or as one character declares in the film: "Sometimes, awful things have their own kind of beauty."
Like former Gucci creative director Ford, "beatific death" films were made by men from other artistic fields: Bob Fosse (All that Jazz) a choreographer, Julian Schnabel (Diving Bell) a painter, Ford a fashion designer, and Sam Mendes (American Beauty) a theater director. Some were first-time film directors (Ford and Mendes).
Cinema is a visual language that uniquely communicates loneliness, and the struggle we commonly face to make meaning. Just think of some of our greatest movies and their lead characters (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, or Taxi Driver).
As film expresses isolation and despair, it can also movingly capture, as does A Single Man, the small moments of clarity and life-affirming grace that surrounds us.
For that, we should be grateful that Tom Ford has made the leap from fashion design to film directing.