The title of this film brings to mind a quote, and it is more likely because I have read and heard this quote so many times before than that it had much to do with Tom Ford’s vision:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
In A Single Man, we meet a fellow who yes – is single, and yes – is in possession of a good fortune, both in terms of wealth and knowledge, but no actually, is not in want of a wife. George Falconer recently lost his life partner of many years, Jim (and both of their dearly loved dogs), and is struggling with the idea of going on without him. The movie seems like a long prelude to his suicide, or a drawn out will-he-or-won’t-he. George is sometimes met with characters who steer him toward light, or maybe he is simply seeing things differently on what he intends to be his last day on earth, but the necessarily hidden nature of his grief keeps him isolated with it.
Tom Ford, previously known as a designer, speaks in heightened and luscious visual language in this film. No detail is missed, no set piece or costume careless. Colin Firth spoke in an NPR interview about the suits his character wore, which Tom Ford carefully considered in terms of the character’s background (an English professor from an old London family) and specially made himself as if by a tailor in a respected shop in London – complete with label and date finished. At times this attention to detail – this designer’s eye – may distract from the story and characters of the film. Many reviewers cite this as a singular complaint and compare the overall style to advertisement because of it’s slick, unrealistically coiffed nature. However, this is George’s story, and George is a man deeply impressed and concerned with beauty both as illusion and truth. Appearances act as a shield for George, but Jim the architect constructed for them a literal glass house. This obsession with aesthetic detail in George is likely Ford himself coming through (Ford wrote the screenplay himself from a Christopher Isherwood novel), image and control are everything to both men.
A Single Man is sort of a classic “art film,” it is seeking to create an emotional portrait and strong visuals more than provide an action-packed plot, but this certainly should not imply a lack of character development. Colin Firth has received much praise for his portrayal of George, a character any person – gay or straight, male or female – can relate to when his grief is laid out before us. A reviewer from The Telegraph (UK) gave an unfavorable opinion of the dynamic between George and Jim – of whom we learn very little – describing the latter character as “a mere occasion for Firth to practise – albeit to a very refined and at times moving level – his habitual persona as a repressed Englishman on the brink of emoting.”