Saturday, September 18, 2010

Movie Meme #2: A Single Man (2009)

Movie Meme#2 A Single Man (2009) - Tom Ford quote describing the film as a deeply spiritual story

About the Movie Meme

A Single Man is the second entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'm be revealing one film a day over the period of a month. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

The film opens with a surrealistic dream sequence where George imagines the scene of the car crash where his lover Jim died

Adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is, to quote the blurb from the back of the British Blu-Ray release, "a romantic tale of love interrupted, the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition, and ultimately, the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, [the film] tells the story of a British college professor who dwells on the past and cannot see his future. We follow him through a single day, where a series of events and encounters, ultimately leads him to decide if there is a meaning to life after the death of his long time partner, Jim."

George imagines lying down to rest with Jim

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

When I saw the online trailer for this film (a different one from that included on the UK Blu-Ray release) I was blown away by the sheer poetry of the imagery. I don't think I've ever seen such a stunningly beautiful piece of work - a sort of movie version of one of those coffee-table books that are full of stunning photographs. A couple of friends warned that the film was 'slow, boring and pretentious' but having missed the film on its theatrical run, I couldn't wait to see it on shiny disc. Happily, I was not disappointed, and despite the fact it's been on sale for barely four months I've already seen it more times than I watch most films in a decade. Each viewing shows new subtleties, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a film I'll still happily be rewatching in a decade's time.

Jim's death is a black stain on George's life where he's existing rather than living, and has decided to make today his last day.

A surrealistic opening scene shows us the scene of a car crash, and it becomes clear that we are witnessing George's dream interpretation of the moments just after his partner Jim was killed in a car crash. From this moment on we move forward through 24 hours of George's day, starting with his awakening to find a large black stain on the bed where his partner should be - a metaphor for the dark stain on his life caused by his partner's absence. As George dabs his finger in the messy black ink and scratches his lip, we're being set up for the rest of the film with the message that Jim's car crash has been 'the kiss of death' for George.

Flashbacks show us how much happier George was in his life before Jim's death

Flashbacks throughout the running time of the film show us how the two lovers met, hinting at their happiness together, but we start with the day George learnt of his partner's death in a cold, emotionless phone call from a relative of Jim's (Mad Men's Don Draper in the form of actor John Hamm no less) who makes it clear George will not be welcome at his partner's funeral.

George learns of Jim's death in a heartless phone call from one of Jim's relatives

I have to confess I've never been a huge fan of Colin Firth, finding him bland and rather charisma-free in most roles, even that of Mr Darcey in the BBC's award-winning TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice which made him a household name. However his oscar nomination for this film is totally deserved, and would be if just for the scene where he takes the phone call bearing him bad news. It is an amazingly subtle piece of acting, showing the simmering anger, upset and disbelief raging beneath the polite exterior of a college professor who's been taught that appearance is everything. The phrase 'career best' is over-used, but surely applies here. Firth is in practically every scene in the film, and there isn't a duff line or move in any one of them.

George struggles with life in his daily routine

What's astonishing about the film though is the quality of the acting from even the most minor supporting cast member. I've long been a fan of Julianne Moore, but she's been over-exposed playing pretty much the same role (herself) in recent outings, so her performance here as a 60's fashion icon and George's best friend who's still in love with him, complete with an impeccable British accent, is a pleasant reminder of how good she can be when given a role to get her teeth into.

George struggles with life in his daily routine

Matthew Goode can also be hit and miss, but as George's lover Jim, he too is note perfect in a performance that shows why George was so happy, and feels that now Jim has gone he has nothing to live for. Nicholas Hault, best known for his work in the excellent ITV youth drama Skins, also delivers in a tough role where we're never quite sure of his motives, and which requires him to deliver a convincing American accent (he succeeds!)

Matthew Goode plays George's lover Jim, here seen in a flashback sequence

Even the relatively minor role of a Spanish hustler who bumps into George and has a short conversation with him at a liquor store is beautifully paced and played. Everything about every little bit part smacks of attention to detail and perfection. The Times called the film " a thing of heart-stopping beauty" and I find it very hard to disagree.

Tom Ford's direction leads to a film which The Times called 'a thing of heart-stopping beauty'. I can't disagree.

The beauty of the film is undoubtedly down to the perfectionism of its first-time director and co-screenwriter, Tom Ford. Every scene is perfectly paced, with subtle visual clues to show us George's state of mind and indicate where his character is heading. The use of desaturated colour to show George's general depression, bursting into over-saturated color whenever he remembers why life is worth living is just one of the visual tics the director uses to underscore the narrative thrust of the film. As one would expect from a former fashion guru, the director's taste is impeccable, and his choice of popular (but not too popular!) music from the 1960's, coupled with one of the most haunting scores I've heard, from original composer Abel Korzeniowski, are the icing on the cake of a film that is pretty much perfect in every way.

Nicholas Hoult plays a young student, fascinated by the humanity of his college professor and worried that he seems to be very unhappy

Those friends who found the film 'slow, boring and pretentious' have completely missed the point in my opinion. One hears a lot of complaints about the 'brain dead' blockbuster garbage that Hollywood is producing these days, and how it means the death of cinema. When films this perfect - so perfect I really can't find a single flaw in it - are still being made, I don't think we have too much to worry about. The Oscars may have snubbed it when it came to dishing out the actual statuettes, but for once BAFTA got it right. I can't wait to see what Tom Ford does next!

Set design is perfect, and the film contains much iconic imagery, such as this shot of George's car parked alongside a large poster for Alfred Hitchock's Psycho movie

Shiny Disc Release

The UK Blu-Ray transfer of the film (which is region locked :-( ) is stunning, reproducing the different digital effects perfectly. There's a lot of grain and noise in parts of this film, but that's deliberate. The Blu-Ray was issued with a 16-page full-colour booklet and a slipcase, despite the fact it retailed at a lower price than is usual for a very recent title like this. There's a very short Making of and a trailer, but the standout extra is a commentary from the co-screenwriter and director Tom Ford. He explains the reasons for his decisions throughout the film, highlighting all kinds of subtleties that you may miss on just a couple of viewings.

The UK Blu-Ray from Criterion comes with a slipcase and 16 page booklet.

1 comment:

Steve Langton said...

Needless to say, I'll be checking this one out very soon after reading your review. Sounds just like my kind of film with the promise of unearthing new delights with each viewing.