Internal affairs

Tom Ford's glossy foray into film has moments to admire, not least its leading man, writes Duncan Wu

February 18, 2010

A Single Man
In cinemas now
Certificate 12A
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult
Directed by Tom Ford

I had a hunch you might be a real Romantic." That line doesn't occur in Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man but is spoken by one of the characters in Tom Ford's new cinematic adaptation. I worry about it, because it doesn't quite belong. George Falconer, the middle-aged English professor in early 1960s southern California who is Isherwood's protagonist, has a number of flaws, but a susceptibility to Romanticism isn't one of them. He has all the clear-sightedness of someone who is going about the business of preparing to go home and shoot himself - or at least he does in this version of the story. (George's impending suicide is a plotting device the film's makers have interpolated as a means of winding up the emotional tension.)

I suppose it could be argued that the film is most faithful to Isherwood's novel in its outward appearance. Too faithful. You can sense the strain with which everything has been given the sheen of early 1960s America in every shot - and it is convincing except when the strain shows. Not even California can have looked the way it does in the film: the settings are too clean, manicured, glossy. That the entire film is the work of a fashion designer is unsurprising.

All of which matters because this is symptomatic of the way in which the film undercuts its source, which is not concerned to render untruths about the world. On the contrary, it documents the self-loathing of the middle-aged - a man's hatred of his own physical decay, his increasing lack of sympathy for the young, and his horrified recognition of the inevitability of age and death. Colin Firth is more fit and handsome than any fortysomething male has a right to be, and far too young to portray the character described by Isherwood, who's supposed to be 58. Still, he's good at projecting an intelligent, self-disgusted awareness of waning physical prowess, and in that respect is rather good. His character has constantly to appear to be thinking, commenting inwardly on everything that passes before him - and that he does well, whether or not we are given a supporting voiceover (of which the film contains too many).

The scale of the challenge facing any actor taking on a part like this is huge. It isn't just that Firth has to play an intellectual; he has to play a gay Englishman in self-imposed exile whose principal task during the course of the film is to commit suicide. By adding suicide to an already melodramatic mix, Ford really is dicing with danger; there's more than enough going on in the novel with its discussion of middle age, homosexuality and grief (for George has not recovered from the death of his lover, Jim). Ford is confident he can pull it off, and with Firth's help he largely does - although the understated comedy of George's various suicide attempts is at odds with the overall tone of the film.

Where Firth really shines is in his portrayal of George's foreignness - sexual and national - when he visits the house of another British emigre, Charlotte, an old flame who lives nearby. Always good at off-kilter women, Julianne Moore would have been better in the role had her accent not incorporated so many anachronistic estuary-istics, completely untrue to the upper-middle-class character described by Isherwood. It is an important detail because the point of the scene is that, for all her material comforts, Charlotte is adrift: by social class, cultural background and emotional disposition, she belongs in the country of her birth - unlike George, who is at home in America.

Isherwood's novel is very internalised, dependent on commentary either by the author or his characters on the world around them - exactly the kind of book it's safest not to film. Which might be one reason why Ford tackled it. What bothers me is that he fails to see that the glossiness of his vision is completely at odds with that of the novel, and as a result the entire thing seems shallow. I'm more convinced, for all their complexities, of the worlds depicted in Von Trier's Antichrist, Haneke's Das Weisse Band and Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which rank among the best films of last year. All the same, A Single Man contains some good performances and is nice to look at. And it's good on the time-honoured subject of the Englishman abroad.

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