In Los Angeles 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis George Falconer, a 52 year old British college professor is struggling to find meaning to his life after the death of his long time partner, Jim. George dwells on the past and cannot see his future as we follow him through a single day, where a series of events and encounters, ultimately lead him to decide if there is a meaning to life after Jim. George is consoled by his closest friend Charley, a 48 year old beauty who is wrestling with her own questions about the future. A young student of George's, Kenny, who is coming to terms with his true nature, stalks George as he feels in him a kindred spirit. A romantic tale of love interrupted the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition and ultimately the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life.
An impeccably dressed man lies in bed with a revolver in his hand, contemplating suicide. He has already laid out his insurance paperwork and other vital documents on the dining room table for his housekeeper to find. His favorite opera plays on the stereo. He adjusts the pillows and sits upright, struggling to find the best position. He puts the gun in his mouth and experiments to find the right angle. He realizes what a mess this will leave on the bed and the wall. He couldn't be so cruel to his poor housekeeper. After testing out the bathroom shower and finding it not quite acceptable either, he returns to the bed with a sleeping bag, and zips himself completely in. How undignified. Eventually, he just gives up for the night. This is entirely far too much of a bother. How does anyone manage this? There must be a better way.
So goes 'A Single Man', the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. The film is based on a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, and is set in Los Angeles of that time period (specifically, in late 1962). Colin Firth stars as gay college professor George Falconer, whose long-term partner died in a car crash eight months earlier. His grief is profound, but the social climate of the day isn't particularly sympathetic to his plight. His partner's family didn't even want him to be notified of the accident, and refused to allow him to attend the funeral.
The story follows George on what he plans to be the last day of his life, as he sets his affairs in order without quite letting anyone know what he's doing. He spends time with best friend Charlie (Julianne Moore), an aging socialite and divorcee whose own personal life is kind of a mess. He says his goodbyes without actually saying goodbye. Then, as the day winds down, an encounter with a student (Nicholas Hoult from 'About a Boy' and the British TV series 'Skins') who represents an idealized vision of youth may force George to question the decisions he's made. No, he hasn't found love; but perhaps he's rediscovered that there can still be beauty in life, even after such a personal tragedy.
As you might expect from a movie directed by a fashion designer, 'A Single Man' is particularly preoccupied with appearances, and especially with textures. Every character is always dressed in precisely the perfect clothes, and styled with precisely the perfect hair and makeup for each situation. In this case, Ford has found a way to marry the style of the piece with its substance, so that each comments on the other. The focus of George's life is his need to maintain the appearance of normalcy. His clothes and personal appearance are his armor against the world. Any stray hair represents a chink in that armor that may allow something to wound him.
Every shot is composed for maximum aesthetic impact. Ford has chosen to photograph the majority of the movie in a grainy, monotone style to emphasize George's depression. Yet even its drabness has a beauty to it. My wife exclaimed that one early scene was, "The prettiest car accident I've ever seen." Flashbacks to his happier days are more vibrant and alive. At specific revelatory moments, colors creep into the main storyline, and then rise and fade to follow George's emotions.
Colin Firth delivers a terrific performance. The role was tailor made for the actor, and he makes George's stoicism, underlying anguish, and moments of sly wit very sympathetic and engaging. Julianne Moore is also solid as always, if less impressive than Firth. She hits all the right emotional notes, but the British accent her character has been saddled with isn't always convincing.
Tom Ford proves himself a capable filmmaker with an effective mastery of tone. 'A Single Man' may be a downer, but it's a beautiful downer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'A Single Man' to Blu-ray on a disc with no fewer than five obnoxious trailers programmed before the main menu. These must be skipped individually. The "Top Menu" command has been disabled.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in the theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio) appears to be very faithful to the stylistic intentions of the filmmaker. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the movie has a drab, grainy appearance to establish mood and provide texture. Much of the contrast range has been flattened, and both colors and flesh tones have been desaturated, almost to the point of looking faded. Detail is good in close-up shots, but softer in wide shots. All of this seems to be completely intentional, and is frequently quite striking even if won't meet the "eye candy" standards that some Blu-ray viewers expect from every disc.
Some flashback scenes are photographed in crisp black & white, while others are vibrantly colorful. At specific moments throughout the narrative, colors will be dialed in to highlight the characters' emotions, often even mid-shot.
The movie has been compressed onto a single-layer BD-25 disc. That's problematic for such a grainy movie. Although the disc doesn't have many egregious compression errors, the grain looks a little noisy and blocky in some scenes, notably the opening credits. Fortunately, this isn't a severe problem. Overall, the disc looks very good.
'A Single Man' is a very talky movie, and much of the dialogue is delivered in hushed tones. Because some of the dialogue is so low, you may wish to adjust your volume a little higher than normal. However, the movie also has sporadic moments where the music will swell up loudly or specific sound effects will hit with dramatic impact. Be aware of these, and be careful not to boost your volume too loudly, or you may regret it when the car crash blasts into your ear.
Otherwise, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has a warm and spacious musical presence. Surround activity is minimal, and heavy bass is extremely rare. Fidelity is excellent on the whole. When the director chooses to exaggerate some sound effects (like a heartbeat, a ticking clock, or the thwap of a tennis ball), they come across very crisply and cleanly.
The movie has one scene around the 44-minute mark with Spanish dialogue. For the first time that I'm aware of, Sony has programmed the English subtitles to automatically appear within the 2.40:1 picture, rather than the letterbox bar. All of the other optional subtitles and caption options are likewise placed inside the active movie picture. This means that the disc is safe for viewing on Constant Image Height projection screens.
Unfortunately, Sony hasn't chosen to grace 'A Single Man' with much in the way of bonus features. What little we get is fairly respectable, however.
'A Single Man' is an elegant, if depressing, period drama. Fashion designer Tom Ford has a clear vision and proves himself surprisingly adept at his transition to filmmaking. This may not be the type of movie you'll pull off the shelf to watch every Saturday night, but when the mood strikes for something thoughtful and melancholy, it should fill the bill. The Blu-ray looks and sounds very good. The bonus features aren't plentiful, but have more substance than expected. This disc merits a solid recommendation.