Would Tom Ford's directorial debut A Single Man be received differently if it were made by a 25-year-old film student or 35-year-old music-video director rather than a 49-year-old fashion designer? It's easy to think so, without having seen the movie: Some reviewers have treated it as the work of a privileged dilettante, taking care to sneer at Ford's branded name. It doesn't help that, instead of a prestigious queer/foreign boutique distributor like Strand Releasing, the movie was picked up in Toronto last year by perennial Indiewood punching bag The Weinstein Company.
Unfortunately, the film's flaws show exactly the kind of superficiality associated with the fashion industry, however unfairly. Its surface pleasures are quite real — and enough to sustain an initial viewing — but it shows more insight into a man's wardrobe than his soul. It feels like it was made by a talented crew without any overall directorial vision to guide them.
Adapted by Ford from Christopher Isherwood's excellent 1964 novel, A Single Man takes place on a single day in the fall of 1962, studded with flashbacks that show the courtship and romance of George (Colin Firth), a tweedy English professor, and his ex-Navy lover Jim (Matthew Goode). That love ended in a violent car crash, and George has spent the subsequent eight months as if struggling for breath underwater.
After spending a surprising amount of time depicting George's morning routine, A Single Man follows George on his day, beginning with a class he teaches on Aldous Huxley. George is still quite depressed, even showing hints of being suicidal. Dinner with his best friend Charlie (Julianne Moore) doesn't soothe the pain; she clearly still holds onto the possibility of sleeping with him. George's flirtations with men are more promising, but death haunts him.
For better or worse, Ford creates a consistent visual style for his film and maintains it with single-minded rigor. Eduard Grau's cinematography is generally bleached of bright colors, as if it were under the spell of George's grief and depression; the only disruption comes during flashbacks or flickers of lust, depicted with sudden bursts of color. Thanks to Ford's eye for elegant composition, the movie is never less than visually appealing: Not for nothing does he include a tip of the hat (or a bow at the waist) to Hitchcock. Nevertheless, the points he makes with this style are regrettably blunt. George's world doesn't need to look gray to feel sad: The color-coordinated misery diminishes the anguish in Firth's beautifully calibrated performance.
While there's no explicit sex in A Single Man, it pulses with a homoeroticism rare for gay-themed films with an eye on the mainstream. George may be grieving, but he's still horny. In a shameful move, though, The Weinstein Company's marketing betrays Ford's forthright eroticism. Their poster shows Firth and Moore lying in bed together, as if they could be sex partners outside Charlie's fantasies. The poster's tacky bait-and-switch seems more likely to incense homophobes than entice straight viewers.
Firth and Moore's performances contribute a depth the film is otherwise lacking; the former's grief-driven emotional turmoil is utterly convincing. But A Single Man both fetishizes and attempts to critique the era it depicts. Its evocation of the early '60s brings to mind both Mad Men and Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, but it lacks their ability to make the brutal sexual and racial politics of the period matter to contemporary viewers — except in the movie's emotional high point, a devastating scene in which Jim's family cuts George off even from common mourning. For George, living through the pre-Stonewall era means that he gets treated like garbage by his partner's relatives — but at least he gets to wear all those cool suits and glasses. A better film could sort out these contradictions. A Single Man doesn't.