Tom Ford’s A Single Man offers up plenty of gorgeousness—in everything from architecture, to automotive design, to the male form—but also a striking problem of visual storytelling. Ford has taken Christopher Isherwood's novel as the basis for his first directing assignment. But while Isherwood knows how to craft a fluid narrative out of even disconnected pieces, Ford, a fashion-shoot veteran, lacks, for now, the ability to put images together into a story.
Ford lets his camera occupy two extremes: it’s either immobile or incessantly mobile. We’re either staring at an eye or a nose in super-tight close-up, or we’re jumping around in quick-cutting shots, skipping seconds here and there in what would otherwise be a straightforward sequence. Or we’re panning across a scene in super slow motion. Or we’re shifting into a quasi-handheld mode as we follow Colin Firth’s George Falconer through his day as he grieves for the loss of his lover of sixteen years. This is all very well, and demonstrates Ford’s willingness to experiment with the many things a moving image can do. But it leaves the viewer with a sense of incoherence. Yes, George Falconer is struggling, and let’s just say (without giving anything away) that time’s passing is important to him. All the same, Ford’s camerawork has the unwanted effect of making the moviegoer frequently check her or his watch.
Really, A Single Man is many movies. It’s a highly saturated 60s reverie. It’s a black-and-white magazine ad for Calvin Klein Eternity (see the movie and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about). It’s yet another entry in the architecture-porn category, this time leading us to marvel at the pay scale of English professors at second-rate Santa Monica colleges. A Single Man is also an expressionistic tone poem, a satire, an homage to Life magazine. You get the picture.
Thankfully, it’s Colin Firth who makes the picture. Not only does he look good in twentieth-century clothes, but he gets a chance to demonstrate an enormous range of emotions all in one performance—without at all making us think he’s showing off. It’s a testament to the power of Firth’s acting that his George does not get lost in Ford’s camera flourishes. Where the camera is often extremely heavy-handed, Firth is subtle and restrained. Ford gives him a slow-motion panning shot of his own at one point. But Firth doesn’t need a camera trick to command our attention.