The last couple of months have seen the cosmos teaching me a few little lessons in humility by sitting me down and forcing me to warm to my pet hates. I had fun watching a Guy Ritchie movie, and didn’t loathe a new work by Sam Taylor-Wood. I was going to add that I didn’t think Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones was as terrible as the reviews made out, but I’ve slept on it and yes, it is. Now, I find myself engrossed and moved by a film that composites some of my most feared irritations. A Single Man is, for starters, directed by a fashion designer. Amongst all artists, I have a prejudicial suspicion that fashion designers between them have the least of value to teach us about the world, the least of interest to contribute to our culture. So often charged with the task of prettifying, sanitising and vanitising the chaos and dirt of the world, torquing self-image for profit, the fashion industry has the least to gain by staying in touch with what’s really happening at any given moment. At the risk of offering up a photogenic picture of suicidal grief, swathed in great clothes and atom-perfect decor, Tom Ford actually presents a world where style masks devastation, costumes a deathly stasis and makes it look like its wearers are moving forward even as they waste away in a compulsion to repeat the past.
A Single Man stars Colin Firth, an actor I don’t dislike, but whose performances have never truly interested me. So often asked to offer up the same portrait of a jilted or bereaved husband/lover so that we might ache to see his hardened heart inevitably soften, he tends to be in the same groove of buttoned-up restraint from one role to the next. Here, he is perfectly cast, his restraint immovable and all the more affecting for not blossoming into a parody of stiff upper-lippery. Most potentially irksome of all, A Single Man pedals the cob-webbed trope of the male academic at a crisis point in the middle of his life salving his pain with the balm of a beautiful, articulate student making himself sexually and intellectually available for instruction. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this old canard wheeled out – in fact, I defy you to come up with more than a handful of movies in which the protagonist is a male academic who is not having a mid-life crisis, failing to complete a major work and/or trying to have sex with his students. I can think of Ghostbusters. Can you help me out and come up with any more? This is the aspect I can’t quite get over. I’ve seen it too many times to let it slide.
It has the look of being directed by a first-timer, falling into some of the safe devices of mirrors and glass denoting a reflected, incomplete self, of dreams of drowning as shorthand for inner turmoil: for every emotion there is an equal and opposite string section, for every minor character a sartorial definition. The very thing that should cripple this film is, for me at least, the thing that salvages it: it is assiduously old-fashioned. Ford’s cinematic frame of reference seems to have been sealed up in the 60s with the impeccable taste of the grandiose European marquee names of Visconti and Fellini, not necessarily because he shares their aesthetic sensibilities, but because he senses that careful composition, a sharp but shallow focus and a seriousness of purpose can replace a pandering, showy will to please the crowd. This also brings with it the belief that the ability to think through, rationalise and fully appreciate the upper octaves of the emotional range goes hand in hand with an ear for opera, literature and big ideas. But this always felt like a sincere series of homages rather than a lazy conformity. A scene in which Firth shares cigarettes with a hustler modelling himself on James Dean, perched on the boot of his car with a pink sunset in front and giant blue Psycho poster behind is as gloriously overdetermined as a Kenneth Anger, a lusciously plumped and erotic combination of sex, Americana and the Freudian death drive.
A Single Man also reminds is off the magnificence of Julianne Moore, so hard-working (in addition to her appearances in the great 30 Rock, this is her sixth feature in 12 months) that it’s easy to take her for granted. She looks incredible, makes a fully believable, movingly clingy character out a couple of brief scenes, and even pulls off yet another in a long string of impeccably turned accents (although, when shouting, her British syllables occasionally have the echo of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie in Blackadder II). This is an odyssey film, in which the final day in the life of a grieving man is anchored in the present only by contact with the people who try to reach him and make him see the beauty all around him. It’s stuffed with romantic fatalism, which ironically pushes it back to earlier age when cinema could be seen at the same dinner party as Kafka, Camus, Huxley and all the other books that pepper the frame like character references for its seriousness of intent. But that moment is gone. Sometimes it takes a novice, a pretender to remind us.
So, that’s it. Maybe the build-up to this conclusion might have lead you to expect some claims to greatness for Tom Ford’s film, but I wouldn’t go that far. It just caught me off guard, and I’m a bit of a softie sometimes. I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s final comment at his stand-up show at the Exeter Picturehouse last week. What, he asked, is the last taboo in comedy (and it might as well refer to cinema)? It’s not jokes about rape or race, but the sight of someone doing something sincerely, and well.