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The sorrow of George Falconer, in A Single Man, Tom Ford's directorial debut, is made bearable by a stylishness that runs deeper than sweat. Even disheveled by grief, George is a put-together man, and there will doubtless be people in the audience who interpret his ingrained self-control as a stifling barrier to engagement with life. If he would just hang... But more attentive viewers will understand George's composure as a moral commitment to avoid calling attention to himself. Transplanted to Southern California, this Englishman becomes a poster-boy for that commitment, announcing it with the clarity of a billboard. But if his demeanor calls attention to his person, it deflects it from himself. On what is clearly intended to be his final day of life, George's upright carriage steers our thoughts away from what he so conspicuously prepares for. As a result, we never waste any sentiment on hoping that he "won't do it."
Nor, after a while, do we feel that George's buttoned-down wretchedness is in any significant way the result of his homosexuality. Although very discreet, he is not truly closeted. He is, simply, bereft: the love of his life has died, killed in an automobile accident on an icy road, visiting his family in Colorado. The closest that one can come to clouding the air with the stigma of forbidden love is by imagining that, in a more enlightened world, George would have been able to join his partner on that trip — and to perish alongside him. The taboo saves his life.
But life without Jim is empty. Life without the kind of love that he and Jim shared — the rapport perhaps even more than the attraction — hasn't got much of a pulse, and George, when we meet him, is already dying inside. That this is literally the case, that George's bad heart will fail his body, in ironic counterpoint to the failure of his resolve to serve his intent, is itself made an element of style, providing an unambiguous close to a life shuddering in existential aimlessness. Although George is in rather too much pain to look pleased, his is a happy death — not to mention a neat one, which his projected suicide wouldn't have been. (It is not just vanity that would always keep George from taking a gun on himself; the ensuing mess would require a thoughtlessness that's wonderfully beyond his license.)
On this final day, George has a few encounters with other people, as well as a series of flashed-back recollections of life with Jim. A housewife living across the road from George's stylish glass box of a house — Jim was an architect — has a chat with George at the bank, right after her daughter half-innocently imparts some unflattering comments about George that she has heard her father make. The mother is as bright as a bee; you want to duck. George's evening with his old English friend, Charlotte, is much less uncomfortable, but it is the saddest part of the film, and for a surprising reason. You would think — literary conventions aboundingly guide you to expect it — that George would somehow fail to connect with Charley, that he would miss his last chance at human connection. But this is not the case, and that it's not the case is beside the point. The point is the abyss of sadness in which Charley lives. It is she who fails to connect with George. When she confesses that she has never known the kind of love that he has lost, we understand at once why hers is a diet of gin. For the time being, at least, she wants to keep her options open, and that requires extensive self-medication. Still: we feel the full smack of what Charley has missed out on in this her life.
A helplessly sultry Spaniard tries to pick George up in the parking lot of a liquor store. George has too much room in which to maneuver himself out of this entanglement, but he is more effectively encircled by a persistent student, a blond son of affluence who has elected George as a teacher in much the way that striplings chose mentors in the Greek gymnasium. The delicacy with which the encounter stops short of carnality will annoy many, but George and Kenny appear to enjoy suppressing (for the nonce) their desires — or perhaps they are savoring them. If Mr Ford has decided that onscreen sex would be more distracting than truly interesting, I can't say that I disagree with him. It never crossed my mind that anything but tact and respect — mutual admiration, in other words — restrain the new friends. They are not going to be grabby or greedy. That's not their style.
One has to imagine that Mr Ford is gratified by the success of his collaborators' contributions. Matthew Goode is not onscreen for six minutes altogether, but that's enough time for him to establish George's pole star. We see a lot more of Nicholas Hoult, as Kenny, but it's interesting that we know a lot less. The contrast suggests that where George's relationship with Jim was "a natural," Kenny would pose a rather more arduous learning experience. Jon Kortajarena does a fantastic job with Carlos, transforming him before our eyes from handsome and hunky to unseasoned and fragile — and small. Ginnifer Goodwin and Ryan Simpkins, as the mother and daughter from across the way, convey the glossy scariness of affluent Americans in the Mad Men age. As if to underscore that allusion, Mr Ford has taken the lucky pain of engaging an unseen Jon Hamm to play the family friend who informs George of Jim's death by long-distance. Guarded but caring, Mr Hamm's voice points up a sweet sensitivity that Don Draper's polished exterior and willed gruffness may cause some Mad Men watchers to overlook. Erin Daniels almost runs away with the mousy part of a bank teller who is clearly always happy to help Mr Falconer with his safe deposit box.
Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, who play George and Charley, have already turned in so many magnificent performances that it's hard to believe that they won't amaze us further, but Mr Ford has provided them with a cinematic laboratory in which to try out some horripilating alchemy. It often seemed to me that the inner man that Colin Firth was guarding with his measured facial moves was not George Falconer but Richard Burton, or, at times, Alec Guinness. Ms Moore's inspiration seems to have been the less thespian example of a nervy operator built on the lines of Pamela Harriman. It doesn't matter whether any of these worthies were present in the actors' minds; the point is that, instead of acting they seemed to be sheltering, if not positively bottling. Both performances, although extremely vivid, are the opposite of histrionic.
One stops short of wishing a heart attack on the richly gifted Tom Ford, but A Single Man will be hard to match. (December 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press