Prior to A Single Man, Tom Ford had exactly one screen credit to his name, as tailor for the last James Bond picture, Quantum of Solace. In light of that, it's downright stunning that his debut effort as director, co-writer, and co-producer is so smashingly assured; it's one of the most confident film debuts I've ever seen. Ford's background, and fame, is in the world of fashion--so, unsurprisingly, the film looks great (more on that presently). But it's not just an empty magazine lay-out; there's real, palpable emotion to it, and that is Ford's greatest success.
It is the story of a day in the life of George (Colin Firth), a well-liked English professor. It is November, 1962. George is gay, and Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, was recently killed in a tragic car accident. George hasn't coped well; "for the last eight months, waking up has actually hurt," he tells us, in voice-over narration. George is tired of hurting. At the beginning of the day, he produced a handgun from his desk. He has decided that today is the day that he will end his life.
George doesn't over-analyze his decision for us, and neither does the film; indeed, the narration is used briefly at the beginning and end of the story, but his plan and his pain are mostly assembled by the viewer. Jim is glimpsed in flashback scenes and dreams, a symbol of an idyllic existence that George feels he will never experience again. He is given some comfort by Charley (Julianne Moore), an old friend; she was once his lover, before he could admit who he was, and he now finds himself drawn back toward her, if only for the familiarity and ease of her company. Other glimmers of life come into George's orbit, like a handsome young student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from About a Boy) who seems to read between the lines of George's classroom diatribe about "invisible minorities." But he cannot see past his own misery and loss.
In the scenes with Hoult, and in George's encounter with a handsome Spaniard (Jon Kortajarena), there is a visceral, sensuous quality to Ford's direction; he makes deliberate use of color and contrast, placing his protagonist in a stark, washed-out world into which step flashes of warmth and color (warmth which, at one key moment, overcomes his pallor). The design of the picture is immaculate--it's one of the best looking movies in recent memory--full of elegant tableaux and haunting images (I can't shake the overhead shot of George's desk, meticulously prepared with all the keys and documents that will be needed after his body is discovered). But it's not all cold and staged; there's a warmth to the film (particularly in the flashbacks), and honest pain. And Ford knows when to let the elegance go, as in a wonderfully off-the-cuff scene where old friends George and Charley dance to Booker T. & the M.G.s (it's got the jangly feel of early Godard).
He also gets a career-best performance out of Firth, a gifted actor who has made something of a career of playing uptight, repressed, and apologetic. It's not a 180-degree turn from that persona--George is all of those things, but he's more, much more, and the screenplay (by Ford and David Scearce) provides the character with significant shadings and dimensions. The flashback to the phone call from Jim's cousin (voiced by an uncredited John Hamm), bearing bad news, is a stunning piece of acting by Firth--and a restrained, sympathetic act of filmmaking by Ford. More than that, it effectively sets the emotional table for this rich and textured film.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
A Single Man arrives on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC transfer that lovingly preserves the gorgeous look and feel of the film. Grain is present and sometimes heavy but never intrusive--it gives a denseness, a thickness to the 2.40:1 image (the texture is particularly impressive in a black and white flashback around the 35-minute mark). Black levels are deep and inky, and details are pitch-perfect. The shifts in color temperature are vividly rendered; the coolness of the palate is stark without being flat, while the flashes of color (the bold blue dress of the neighbor girl, the bright red rose outside Charley's house) blast through the screen. The transfer only pushes too far once, in the sunlit outdoor scene between George and the handsome Spanish stranger, which skews a bit too orange for my taste. That minor complaint aside, this is an awfully good-looking disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is clean and even; it's a small, chatty movie, so the mix is appropriately intimate. Environmental effects are subtle but present--the crackling fire in Charley's living room, the distant clinking of cocktail glasses at the neighbor's house. But dialogue is clear and audible (though George's opening narration is a tad under-modulated), and the music cues (both the Hermann-esque score and period songs) are nicely robust.
English, English SDH, and commentary subtitles are also available.
The slimness of the bonus features is a touch disappointing--with the intricacy of the production and costume design, for example, a stronger focus on those elements might have been appreciated. But what we get is quite good, particularly the Audio Commentary by producer/director Tom Ford. Ford is an eloquent, thoughtful commentator, and his track delves deep into the film's themes and symbolism, as well as the practical and logistical concerns of the production. "The Making of A Single Man" (16:07) is an above-average featurette, intercutting well-chosen clips from the film with interviews (artfully shot in black and white) with Ford and his cast. It's a touch formal, but insightful and well-made.
The disc is also BD-Live compatible, with the "Movie IQ" viewing option available.
A Single Man is somewhat slight; it's a small, delicate movie, but that's exactly as it should be. The slice-of-life approach gives it a lightness, a delicacy; you don't feel the plot gears grinding, and in spite of the meandering nature of the storytelling, it feels shorter than its 100 minutes. But it is a real achievement, and announces its neophyte director as a filmmaker of tremendous skill and control.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.