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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 05:32 am

Firth gives a singular performance in Ford’s Man

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Colin Firth stars as George in The Weinstein Company’s A Single Man.

When designer Tom Ford was charged with pulling Gucci back from the brink of bankruptcy, he wasted no time reintroducing a sense of style and daring to the venerable fashion line. So, it should come as no surprise that he would take a similar approach when directing his debut film. In adapting Christopher Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man, Ford, who also wrote the screenplay, has created a fever dream of passion, obsession and longing that breaks your heart at every turn. Featuring a stunning performance from Colin Firth, as well as a lush score from Abel Korzeniowski, the filmmaker gives us a powerful look at isolation and loneliness that resonates long after the credits roll.

Firth is George, a gay English professor in Los Angeles in the early 1960s who’s reeling from the death of his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode). Though the tragedy occurred months earlier, he still feels a sense of loss that no amount of grieving will heal. In his mind, his only recourse is suicide, which he contemplates and plans for over the course of a single day, which is riddled with memories of happier times.

The sense of isolation George feels, as a result of his grief, his homosexuality during this time period and being a Brit adrift in L.A., is underscored in a variety of ways. Ford conveys George’s loneliness visually by shooting the character through bordered slats or picturing him walking against the flow of a crowd, as well as setting him apart with his conservative attire amid the period clothing of his students. While these choices provide a visual subtext for George’s emotional state, Firth conveys his character’s isolation in a variety of ways as well, most notably in the physicality he brings to the role. At times, he seems hunched over and askew, as though he’s barely able to bear up under the loneliness he’s forced to contend with. This is never more obvious than during an early scene in which he drags himself out of bed and, in getting dressed, stands before a mirror in which he puts on the face and demeanor society and his workplace expect from him. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking moment, as we see how empty each of George’s days have become. He’s nothing but a dead man wandering through them.

It comes as no surprise that Ford employs a fashion ad aesthetic at times, but it’s perfectly suited for the sort of poignant, idealized reveries that George experiences. As he goes about putting things right or enjoying simple pleasures for what could be a final time, Ford’s stylized approach gives George’s day an effective sense of poignancy, particularly during flashbacks in which we see him and Jim sharing their lives.

As well as Ford has put the film together, it would all be for naught without Firth’s fine turn. He gives us a portrait of a man who has tired of putting on a false face to function in a world he’s lost interest in. At times this is liberating, at others melancholy and at some points crushing. Firth fully embodies all of these feelings in George to wonderful effect, the result being a performance that conveys the weariness of living and the yearning for peace. It’s a masterful job, one that gives the film the emotional heft to compliment Ford’s complex visuals, making A Single Man a poignant look at a man who experiences all of the joy and pain that love can bring.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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