A Single Man (Blu-ray)
Studio: Sony (Weinstein Company)
Film Length: 100 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH
Disc Format: 1 50 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 11, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: July 6, 2010
Colin Firth would have won this year’s Best Actor Oscar if Fox Searchlight hadn’t rescued Crazy Heart from distribution limbo. Once the Jeff Bridges juggernaut got started, it was unstoppable, but Firth did pick up a well-deserved BAFTA (the British Oscar) and several critics’ awards for a performance completely unlike the costume dramas and comedic roles for which he’s known. Firth is the main reason to see A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood (the author whose stories were the basis for Cabaret).
The film takes place entirely on Friday, November 30, 1962. The man of the title is George Falconer (Firth), a professor of English at a southern California university. George awakens from troubled dreams and announces, in voiceover: “It takes time in the morning for me to become George.” He then slowly assembles himself. “Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament.”
The predicament is how to make it through the day, because George is still in mourning for the love of his life, who died eight months earlier after they’d spent sixteen years together. And George’s grief cannot be allowed to show, because, first of all, George is English and a stiff upper lip is part of his nature. But more importantly, the love of his life was a man, and in 1962 homosexual couples did not live openly. The term “gay” was not yet common parlance. More common were euphemisms like that used by George’s neighbor, Mr. Strunk (Teddy Sears): “light in the loafers”.
Throughout the day, George will flash back to memories of Jim (Matthew Goode), some of them happy, some painful. A phone ringing just as George finishes dressing reminds him of the awful moment eight months ago when he answered a call expecting Jim’s voice only to hear that of a stranger, Jim’s cousin (an uncredited Jon Hamm), informing him of a fatal car accident. The scene is simply shot and performed – small gestures, minute changes of expression – but it still conveys how a person’s entire world can be obliterated in a few seconds. (On the commentary, director Ford says that the crew watched in rapt attention while this scene was being filmed – and film crews aren’t easy to impress.)
Back in the present, the phone call is from George’s closest friend, another English transplant known as “Charley”, short for Charlotte (Julianne Moore). She wants to make sure George is coming for dinner that evening. A woman in her forties, Charley can’t understand why, after doing everything right (being a good wife, mother, hostess), she suddenly finds herself divorced and alone with no apparent future before her. She talks of returning to England (where, although she can’t know it, the “Swinging Sixties” that are about to transform London would probably suit her just fine), but what holds her back is simple: She’s not so secretly in love with George. Later in the film, when George joins Charley for dinner, they play out a mini-drama that one suspects they have played out many times before.
As we follow George through the day, it becomes apparent that today is different, for reasons that the viewer will quickly grasp. Today George is noticing things that his grief would previously have blocked out: the perfume worn by a secretary at the university; the prettiness of little Jennifer Strunk (Ryan Sympkins), the neighbor girl whose noisy play usually drives him crazy; the generosity of her mother, Susan (Big Love’s Ginnifer Goodwin); the handsome looks of a young hustler (Jon Kortajarena), who tries to pick up George when he’s buying a bottle of gin to bring to Charley (George politely declines). Even his students, who he describes to a colleague (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies’ piemaker) as being bored and boring, suddenly jolt him awake, and a question from the class inspires him to depart from his lesson plan and deliver an impromptu and passionate speech about fear. (The Cuban missile crisis had just ended.)
But the most sustained novelty of the day is George’s repeated encounters with a student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, formerly the boy in About a Boy), whose interest in George is almost brazen. Kenny is the sort of student that any teacher will instantly recognize: the intensely focused type who is convinced that there is secret knowledge out there and latches onto a teacher who seems to have the key to it. Kenny’s pursuit of George resembles a seduction, but it’s not explicitly sexual, despite an erotic undercurrent. It just so happens that these two individuals, at this particular moment in time, find themselves in circumstances that allow them to make an unusual connection.
George ends the day alone, as befits the title. Things have changed, and George reflects on this in voiceover. And then things change again.
A Single Man has all the earmarks of a vanity project. Tom Ford was a hugely successful fashion designer but had no experience as a filmmaker. He co-wrote the script, produced and directed the film, and reportedly financed it himself. But Ford started with a strong piece of material in Isherwood’s novel, and he felt passionately enough about it to adapt it well (although in the commentary he notes numerous points at which he departed from the text). The resulting script attracted a flawless cast, anchored by Firth, who bring the story’s characters to vivid life. It’s often said that proper casting is a director’s single most important job. When the actors are as well-chosen and skilled as those in A Single Man, it’s hard to screw up the movie.
The film does have its flaws. Like many first-time directors, Ford doesn’t have the experience to understand when less is more, and the film is overdesigned. I’m not talking about fastidious costume selection or set decoration, which, when well done (as they are here), blend seamlessly into the film’s fictional world. No, the mischief occurred when Ford discovered the flexibility of digital post-production and found that he could recolor any portion of any frame to his liking. As he acknowledges in the commentary, Ford spent hours changing the colors of such things as lipstick and car interiors to suit his taste. But the real problem occurred when Ford began to recolor entire scenes. He started with a basic visual strategy: George’s present is desaturated, while his memories of Jim are colorful (or, in one specific instance, vividly black and white). Such visual differentiations for flashbacks are common. But then Ford chose to bring this strategy into the present, so that whenever George perks up during the day, color soaks through the frame around him. It’s a clever trick for the first few times, but it quickly becomes a gimmick and a “look at me” distraction. A more experienced director would have managed the transitions subtly, so that they registered subliminally – or simply trusted his actors to convey these different states of mind through performance.
(Ironically, Ford’s visual tricks are more noticeable on the smaller screen of home video, which is where most people are likely to see this film. Projected on the large screen of a movie theater, the effect is less jarring.)
It’s a measure of the greatness of Firth’s performance as George that he sails right over these directorial fiddlings. When the film is over, you don’t remember the shifts in color. You remember Firth’s face and the look in his eyes: sometimes mournful, sometimes angry, sometimes haunted, occasionally amused, ultimately accepting.
Sony has turned in their usual fine work on a difficult piece of material. The frequent color shifts will test the accuracy of your monitor’s calibration. If black levels aren’t accurately set, the desaturated scenes and the scenes at night (both present day and flashback) will lose shadow detail until the colors arrive. But the detail is there, and you should see it both with and without the colors. Ford’s extensive post-production tinkering is sometimes evident in a small amount of video noise, particularly on fine patterns, but thankfully there doesn’t appear to have been any significant effort to strip that away, because detail remains intact throughout the image. The period decor is as carefully done as on Mad Men, and the Blu-ray shows it to full advantage.
Given the subject matter, one does not expect elaborate effects editing, but the soundtrack for A Single Man has been carefully constructed. There is a subtle ambiance appropriate to each environment – a suburban home, a college campus, George’s bank, a local bar – and these often contrast sharply with the more subjective sounds accompanying George’s memories, such as surf or rainfall. The score, credited to Abel Korzeniowski, with contributions by Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, is the dominant presence. Ford is a passionate fan of Bernard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock, especially Vertigo, a cue from which is quoted several times on the soundtrack. He wanted something similar for A Single Man, and his composers delivered a pulsing, sweeping orchestral score that provides a counterpoint to George’s rigorous composure. The DTS lossless track delivers all of this material, as well as the dialogue, with excellent fidelity.
MovieIQ. This is Sony’s on-screen trivia function that uses BD-Live capabilities to provide IMDb-like information during playback. The option is selected from the “play” menu. An icon indicates when relevant information is available.
Commentary with Producer/Director Tom Ford. Ford talks about his passion for the Isherwood novel and points out where he departed from it, often incorporating elements from his own life. He identifies locations and discusses the mechanics of the compressed, 21-day shoot, as well as the post-production process. Throughout, he offers his own insights on the characters and his views on their motivations.
The Making of A Single Man (HD) (16:07). Primarily in black-and-white, this featurette includes on-set interviews with Ford, Firth, Moore, Goode and Hoult, all of whom contribute interesting insights. Goode and Hoult do such a fine job with their American accents in the film that it’s a shock to hear their native English inflections.
Trailers. At startup, the disc plays trailers for the Starz series The Pillars of the Earth, Sony Blu-ray, Nine, Chloe and Nowhere Boy. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button, and all but Nowhere Boy and Pillars of the Earth are also available from the special features menu. The special feature menu contains additional trailers forThe Runaways, Broken Embraces, Damages and Breaking Bad. As is customary with Sony, the trailer for A Single Man is not included, but it can be found on other Sony discs (e.g., Youth in Revolt).
BD-Live. As of the date of this review, BD-Live for this disc had not been enabled.
I don’t know whether Tom Ford will make another film, but if so I hope he continues to exercise the same good taste in both material and casting. All he has to do is learn when to ratchet back the technique. (He’s in good company. Even Scorsese went through a “show-off” phase.) In the meantime, A Single Man remains an impressive debut primarily because it’s anchored by one of the finest and most moving screen performances in recent years.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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