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A Single Man

Reading the preamble to an imminent film release normally involves the usual blinkered trumpetings and proclamations, and you get used to the idea that none of it is remotely relevant. Tom Ford, first-time director (day job: fashion designer), has given a series of annoyingly solipsistic musings to accompany the release of A Single Man. To wit: I wanted the thing to be a disaster. I wanted him to preeningly strut back to whence he came and leave the filmmaking to proven talent already struggling to get anything in cinemas.

Disappointing, then, to admire A Single Man a great deal. Despite the odd howler, it’s a tremendous, fluid, considered adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s exceptional novella.

Colin Firth is Oscar-worthy (has he ever been better?) as George Falconer, gay English professor at a low-key US college giving unconventional classes in which he manages to sound off grimly about what fear means, or maybe it’s just a bad week. Which, if you’re uninitiated, you might well already reasonably assume, given the fact that he placed a gun in his briefcase before the left his (lavish) house on the morning we join him. He’s in a bad way; popping pills accompanied by a few mouthfuls of whiskey and clearly devastated and still in thrall to a terrible grief. He’s had enough and is in limbo, waiting to die, or for something more indeterminate that looks unlikely, and is pottering around in a half-world in which taunting memories drag him out of an empty present at every turn.

There is some pretty horrible use of jump-cuts early on – normally the preserve of an unsure or over-exuberant filmmaker as a way of either compacting or fracturing time or jazzing things up. It rarely works and here it often feels ridiculous and tricksy; it’s glaring and unnecessary.

One other minor gripe: at the beginning of the film we have (after Jarman-esque shots of Firth floating in a somewhat disconcerted way in water) Firth/Falconer waking up after a nightmare; it’s another reconstruction of the death of his beloved partner (Matthew Goode, perfectly cast). A well-used visual emblem ties the subconscious to the present; then we have the initial monologue. One of the few mistakes Ford makes is to get rid of most of this (Isherwood’s quietly magnificent encapsulation of the daily ritual of becoming yourself in increments) and instead rewrite, cut and rejig. That Ford has at his disposal such brilliant, wryly sympathetic observation and chooses to ignore it seems churlish and wasteful. I’ve never been sure whether or not Isherwood was merely talking about a grief-stricken mind, but I’ve always taken the start of the book as a dead-eyed universal on the subject of the human plight, a perfectly realised attribution as to our daily fate in the slow accretion of whichever version of ourselves is deemed appropriate. In the context of the film, a fuller version of the opening would surely have helped augment a sense of Falconer having to construct a self out of the wreckage of his life.

Beyond a shaky first few minutes, the film is rather (but largely justifiably) over-assured but works exceedingly well, and Ford pulls it all off with room to spare, mixing light comedic touches with genuine emotional weight and a completely believable period detail. Preparations for Falconer’s suicide are given a farcical treatment that’s entirely fitting and the poignancy of a car-park meeting is quite brilliantly fashioned, a fraught Janet Leigh Psycho billboard offering a suitable backdrop. Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult are also both superb, the latter surprisingly so (no slight; I’d no idea what to expect having only seen him in About A Boy when he must’ve been ten).

Despite all that, it’s Colin Firth’s nuanced, amusedly deadened interpretation of Falconer that makes the whole thing work. He’s quite magnificent here, to the extent that D’Arcy epitaphs will surely be slightly unfair. He’s far better here; he is George Falconer.

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