‘A Single Man’

Swoon over Ford's spectacle of 1960s style


Oh to live in 1962, when people guzzled gin guilt-free and dragged innocently on cigarettes, when they drove huge great cars without worrying about global warming, when women (and men for that matter) had silhouettes instead of mere shadows. This is on the condition that it’s a 1962 drawn up by Tom Ford, the fashion designer who revamped Gucci and Yves St. Laurent before coming out with his own sleek fashion label, and is photographed to restrained perfection by cinematographer Edward Grau.

“A Single Man” — Ford’s directorial debut — can best be described as an on-screen fashion runway set in a gorgeous fictional 1962 where no one, absolutely no one, is unseemly, unattractive or even overweight. Take this scene: A drunken, unhappy middle-aged woman lies prostrate on the carpet in her living room, venting her frustration with all that’s gone wrong in her life. It could be very messy. But between them, Ford and Grau create a moment that’s flawlessly lit, exquisitely framed — and the woman’s mascara isn’t even runny. What is with that?

A Single Man
Director Tom Ford
Run Time 101 minutes
Language English

Actually, it’s Ford all over. “A Single Man” has been criticized in the United States as a textbook case of style over substance. But, hey, at least the style makes you swoon and fills you with longing for a more designed, more streamlined, more beautiful existence. Absolutely uncluttered by the 21st-century trappings of cell phones and computer screens, fitness gyms and Reality TV, “A Single Man” is a crystalline concentrate of pained emotions and visual loveliness — which, as Rei Kawakubo (founder of the Comme des Garcons empire) told journalists sometime in the 1980s, is what fashion should be all about.

The centerpiece of this cinematic fashion parade is Colin Firth, best known outside England for his role as the straight-laced heartthrob in the “Bridget Jones” series. Firth can probably play the repressed, stiff-upper-lip Englishman in his sleep, but there’s nothing stereotyped about his cardboard rigidity here; he inhabits the role with an ease underscored by calculation. The opening scene — almost unbearably protracted — shows him in an aquarium tank full of water. Completely nude, Firth does a sort of underwater dance, swiveling and turning slowly as the camera lingers over his long white limbs. When he finally surfaces for air, the moment is palpable, defined by physical panic, and you can feel his lungs desperately clutching for oxygen. It’s the most organic, telling scene in the film, and interestingly Ford has chosen to open with it. He no doubt followed the law of the runway — the first designs shown should be the ones that jolt the senses and define a particular collection.

Firth plays George, a fiftysomething professor teaching at a small college in Los Angeles — though his Mercedes and an Eames-esque, all-glass house in neat suburbia suggest a more substantial income. “A Single Man” traces a day in George’s life from the moment of waking, and as his voice-over narrative tells us, “It takes some effort to be George.” For the past eight months, he has been grieving over the sudden death of his lover and companion of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), and you see immediately that George’s world has been dark and ruinous ever since the night he got the news (a cold, bureaucratic phone call from Jim’s cousin).

Still, he continues to go through the motions: filling up the percolator, sitting on the toilet, taking a phone call. He agrees to see his best friend, Charley (a magnificent Julianne Moore), that night for dinner — though boozy divorcee Charley can get tiresome after about 15 drinks. George exchanges good-mornings with his aggressively cheerful, bouffanted neighbor (a spot-on Ginnifer Goodwin) and her obnoxious kids, gets into his car, and as he drives off to work we see Charley sit at her dressing table (a drink by her side) and begin the ritual of makeup. She has another 11 hours to kill before George’s arrival, and she applies her eyeliner with meticulous precision.

In this century, George and Charley may perhaps be drawn as losers or get spots on “Oprah,” which sort of amounts to the same thing. But the early 1960s was a different era. Being unhappy was just as acceptable as smoking, drinking or almost picking up a gorgeous stranger in a liquor store parking lot (in this case, Jon Kortajarena, one of Ford’s most iconic models). None of it was anyone’s business but one’s own, and in Ford’s scheme of things, they’re far less serious sins than the intrusiveness, ugliness and modern insistence on broadcasting personal happiness. A bit of runway philosophy, that.