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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Single Man (review)

Here’s an example of criticism as a process. I first posted a short review of A Single Man on December 11, 2009 — you can still read it at the bottom of this post. In early January, I was asked by one of the alternative weekly newspapers that runs my reviews to supply a middle-length review of the film, so I took that short review and plumped it up a bit, and you can read the result in the middle of this post. Last week, another of the alt-weeklies I write for asked for a feature-length review of the film, so I plumped it up again, which you can read immediately below. My opinion of the film did not change in the interim, but perhaps it’s interesting to some of you to see how my review evolved and how, even in the age of the Internet, the needs and demands of print publications can still influence how and what even a primarily Internet-only writer writes.


Sad, Pretty Pictures

It’s a good thing first-time director Tom Ford — yes, the fashion designer — cast someone with the chops of Colin Firth as his leading man, because it meant that Firth could be left to carry the movie while Ford got on with what was clearly his primary intention: making the cinematic equivalent of a fashion magazine spread or a perfume commercial. Or perhaps Ford deliberately chose Firth so he, the director, wouldn’t have to worry about niggling little things like story and character, and could leave such nonsense to his more than capable star.
Whatever the case: see this alternately moving and frustrating film for Firth (A Christmas Carol, Easy Virtue), who would ascend to A-level status after this if there were any justice in the world. It is a bald fact that this intimate drama works as well as it does because he is so compelling, so plausible, so heartbreaking as a college professor in early 1960s Los Angeles mourning the death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode [Leap Year, Watchmen] in flashbacks) at a time when such relationships were barely acknowledged, never mind tolerated.

This day-in-the-life tale, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], starts out coolly elegant, the stylish imagery in harmony with Firth’s exquisitely delicate performance as he navigates just another ordinary awful day, months after his lover accidentally abandoned him. His George, a reticient but unexpectedly passionate Englishman lost among brash Southern Californians, contends with a student (Nicholas Hoult: Skins, Kidulthood) who’s making advances and might portend a new beginning for the disconsolate professor, and an old friend (Julianne Moore: Eagle Eye, Blindness) who may not be as fully sympathetic to his pain as she appears at first.

It’s in the one extended sequence with Moore that the film works best as a cohesive package, in which Ford restrains himself and lets Firth and Moore create a potently passionate portrait of long-term friendship, with all the unspoken history, tender affection, and the not-so-paradoxical simmering bitterness that can sometimes go along with that… particularly when one friend may want something different out of the relationship than the other does. From the moment we see Moore’s Charley preparing for their evening in at her snazzy pad, as she is plastering on her makeup, cigarette dangling carelessly from her lips, she becomes an unforgettably vivid personality: a woman who considers herself past her prime, lonely and hopeless about remedying that, and resentful at the continuing attractiveness of George (even if he cannot take advantage of his attractiveness in the same way a handsome straight man could). They’re an odd — and oddly poignant pair — outcasts both from the mainstream of their day, as a gay man and an “older” woman, who offer an unexpected look at the wages of nonconformity.

It’s here, as George and Charley enjoy an evening of boozing, smoking, and commiserating, that Ford manages to balance the visual beauty he’s obviously so keen to produce with the story that goes along with it. The segment, taken alone, is one of the most strikingly designed bits of cinema of 2009: from the stylish 60s elegance of Charley’s home and of their eveningwear — even the notion alone that friends would dress for dinner at home! — to the illicit naughtiness of how Ford depicts alcohol and tobacco use as quite so glamorous in our more puritanical times.

Eventually, though, we come to see that Ford is happy to let a cacophony of dissonant visual guises overpower all else. It’s a shame, because Firth and Goode are one of the most wonderfully romantic couples the screen has ever seen, which makes the grief all the more affectingly tragic. Too bad Ford wasn’t able to let the grim beauty of it all speak for itself.


the middle-length review:

Sad, Pretty Pictures

It’s a good thing first-time director Tom Ford — yes, the fashion designer — cast someone with the chops of Colin Firth as his leading man, because it meant that Firth could be left to carry the movie while Ford got on with what was clearly his primary intention: making the cinematic equivalent of a fashion magazine spread or a perfume commercial. Or perhaps Ford deliberately chose Firth so he, the director, wouldn’t have to worry about niggling little things like story and character, and could leave such nonsense to his more than capable star.

Whatever the case: see this alternately moving and frustrating film for Firth, who would ascend to A-level status after this if there were any justice in the world. It is a bald fact that this intimate drama works as well as it does because he is so compelling, so plausible, so heartbreaking as a college professor in early 1960s Los Angeles mourning the death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode in flashbacks) at a time when such relationships were barely acknowledged, never mind tolerated.

This day-in-the-life tale, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, starts out coolly elegant, the stylish imagery in balance with Firth’s exquisitely delicate performance as he navigates just another ordinary awful day, months after his lover accidentally abandoned him. His George, a reticient but unexpectedly passionate Englishman lost among brash Southern Californians, contends with a student (Nicholas Hoult) who’s making advances and might portend a new beginning for the disconsolate professor, and an old friend (Julianne Moore) who may not be as fully sympathetic to his pain as she appears at first.

Eventually, though, we come to see that Ford is happy to let a cacophony of dissonant visual guises overpower all else. It’s a shame, because Firth and Goode are one of the most wonderfully romantic couples the screen has ever seen, which makes the grief all the more affectingly tragic. Too bad Ford wasn’t able to let the grim beauty of it all speak for itself.


original short review posted 12.11.09:

It’s a good thing first-time director Tom Ford — yes, the fashion designer — cast someone with the chops of Colin Firth as his leading man, because it meant that Firth could be left to carry the movie while Ford got on with what was clearly his primary intention: making the cinematic equivalent of a fashion magazine spread. Or perhaps Ford deliberately chose Firth so he, the director, wouldn’t have to worry about niggling little things like story and character. Whatever the case: it is a fact that this intimate drama works as well as it does because Firth is so compelling, so plausible, so heartbreaking as a college professor in early 1960s Los Angeles mourning the death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode in flashbacks) at a time when such relationships were barely acknowledged, never mind tolerated. This day-in-the-life tale, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, starts out coolly elegant, the stylish imagery in balance with Firth’s exquisitely delicate performance. But eventually we come to see that Ford is happy to let a cacophony of dissonant visual guises overpower all else. It’s a shame, because Firth and Goode are one of the most wonderfully romantic couples the screen has ever seen, which makes the grief all the more affectingly tragic. Too bad Ford wasn’t able to let the beauty of it all speak for itself.


MPAA: rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Paul

    Does anyone have an interpretation of the film and when the narrator says “it came”

  • Paul

    Correction: Does anyone have an interpretation of the END of the film and when the narrator says something like “it came”

  • MaryAnn:

    “Making the cinematic equivalent of a fashion magazine spread.”

    How true!

    However, the movie did become much more engaging in the second half, particularly when George and Kenny meet in the bar. I agree that a stronger director would have helped, but the when the actors were allowed to interact, the movie flew. It could have soared…

  • While I see your points, overall I disagree about the film as a whole. Yes, your favorite scene was interesting and illuminating as far as backstory and character are concerned, but I felt the quiet scenes of George smiling through the pain the most affecting, emotionally. Sometimes the director getting out of the way and just letting the actor blow your socks off (or crush your heart) with his performance may just be the way to go. B)

    Of course, I’m a depressive who’s gone through that “just smile and make it through the day,” so maybe I’m “biast”. B)

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