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A Single Man

Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
The Weinstein Company
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"

Colin Firth Gives One of the Year's Best Performances

Film Club: A Single Man
Film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss A Single Man on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.

DOUG MYRLAND: Let’s do something completely different now and… BETH ACCOMANDO: Monty Python? MYRLAND: No, a film called “A Single Man.” It’s the directorial debut from fashion designer Tom Ford. It’s based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood. It has Colin Firth starring as a man grieving the unexpected death of his male lover of 16 years. And Julianne Moore stars as his best friend. It’s a very stylized 1960s period drama, and it’s getting a lot of buzz… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MYRLAND: …a lot of critical buzz. And we’ve got a couple of minutes before the break to just talk about it and we’ll talk about it again after the break. But, in brief, Beth, what did you think? ACCOMANDO: This was one of my favorite films from the year. One of the things that I really liked about what Tom Ford did is his ability to get the subjective point of view. You really feel like you are getting inside the head of Colin Firth’s character and seeing the world as he does and feeling what he’s feeling. And I – that was the thing that impressed me the most about it. SCOTT MARKS: The first reel is pretty artfully composed. He’s trying a little too hard to make… ACCOMANDO: But it still works. MARKS: …an art film. After I got used to that and saw where the film was going, I’m with you, I think it’s one of the best movies of the year. It is the best performance by a male actor this year, and there’s been a lot of great ones. We’re going to talk about another one later on in “Me and Orson Welles.” But the period décor and the period recreation… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MARKS: …in this film, spot on. I mean, just flawless. And I also have to say this is the most depressing Christmas on record. I mean, child abuse, rape, murder, incest and that’s just in “Precious.” I mean, every film short of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and maybe “Avatar” and “Me and Orson Welles” is a downer. This is the biggest downer of them all. This is such a sad, sad movie. ACCOMANDO: Yeah, but it’s – On a certain level, it’s not a downer for one reason, because it’s so well made. I mean, for me, personally, when a film is incredibly well made, no matter what the content is, I kind of get a buzz off of it just because it’s so well done and to see something so well done is just so rewarding. MYRLAND: Well, this is a great tease because we have to take a break… MARKS: Aww… MYRLAND: …and when we come back from the break, we’ll talk more about “A Single Man” and particularly about the design… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MYRLAND: …elements and how artfully created it is. So you’re listening to the Film Club of the Air. Our guests are Beth Accomando and Scott Marks. And we will be right back to play a clip and talk more about “A Single Man” right after this break. MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I’m Doug Myrland, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. It’s Film Club of the Air. We’re talking about “A Single Man” with Beth Accomando and Scott Marks. And we mentioned before the break that it’s a very – it’s set in November of 1962, and I think I’m the only one in the room here who was walking around and looking at things in 1962. I… ACCOMANDO: I was walking. MARKS: Thanks for the compliment, Doug. MYRLAND: But I have to say as beautiful as this film is and as meticulous as the design is, it’s not particularly realistic looking. It’s pristine. The whole film is very designed. I mean… MARKS: Oh, sure, highly stylized. MYRLAND: And I think that when you talk about a period piece, it looks like a sort of an idealized version of 1962. MARKS: See, but the fact that it’s November of ’62, the year before the Kennedy assassination, I know I was around walking then and I was out of diapers. And I guess we remember that period in time as being somewhat idyllic considering everything that came after it. So that did – the whole stylization didn’t bother me. And before the break you were talking about how because the film was so well made that you didn’t find it all that depressing, you have to be a good filmmaker in order to depress me, in order to get an emotion out of me. I mean, if that was the case, I would’ve been weeping at “Have You Heard About the Morgans?,” you know, and it’s like I just couldn’t do that. But I think because the film is so well made and so stylized and because it puts you inside this man’s head that when the kicker—and there is a big kicker at the end of this film—comes into play, it’s really devastating. And it’s something I didn’t expect. ACCOMANDO: Oh, it is. It doesn’t – Yeah, it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact for me but it makes it – because sometimes when you say a film is so depressing, it keeps people away because they feel like, oh… MARKS: Okay, yeah, yeah. ACCOMANDO: …I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to get a big downer. And for me, it’s not a downer because it is so well made. It’s still – Yes, the end is devastating and there’s… MARKS: The subject matter, yeah. ACCOMANDO: Yeah, and the subject matter is depressing and there are moments in it that are grim but because it’s so well made, you don’t come out of it feeling, oh, my God, this is the world’s horrible… MARKS: In that sense, I’m entertained. It’s like I find “The Sorrow and the Pity” to be a very entertaining film and it makes me feel terrible but it is… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MARKS: …so well made and so put together and so artistically, you know, lucid that there is something entertaining about that and I… ACCOMANDO: Umm-hmm. MARKS: …think I find that in this film, too. MYRLAND: Well, let’s give people a taste of it. It’s a scene from the opening of the film. Colin Firth’s character, George, tells us in a voice over how he prepares each morning to face the world, and here it is. (audio of clip from the film “A Single Man”) MYRLAND: That’s Colin Firth in the film written and directed by Tom Ford, “A Single Man.” While we still have a moment on this film before we move on, do you think this is a potential Academy Award performance? MARKS: Oh, yeah. ACCOMANDO: It should be. MARKS: Yeah. ACCOMANDO: He was amazing.

Who would have thought that a fashion designer making his feature film debut would deliver one of the year's best films but that's exactly what Tom Ford has done with "A Single Man" (opens December 25 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). You can also listen to our Film Club of the Air discussion about the film.

Based on the 1964 novel of the same title by Christopher Isherwood, "A Single Man" concerns George Falconer (Colin Firth), a 52 year old British college professor still suffering depression after the sudden death of his long time partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Set in Los Angeles in 1962, the film captures a mix of moods. There’s the tension of the Cuban missile crisis but also a sense of innocence since it is just before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. George is trying to find meaning to his life. Jim’s death has left him devastated. He dwells on the past and cannot see a future.

Matthew Goode and Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
The Weinstein Company
Matthew Goode and Colin Firth in "A Single Man"

The film follows him through a day of seemingly unexceptional events. He goes through the motions of teaching and socially interacting with others but his mind seems elsewhere. He meets up with Charley (Julianne Moore), an old close friend who also finds herself alone and contemplating a solitary future. But then George is approached by a young student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who sparks some life in George. Then the film and fate deliver a bitterly ironic twist.

On one level, “A Single Man” is depressing. George, for much of the film, is consumed by thoughts of suicide as he copes not only with loneliness but also with a deep sense loss and seemingly inconsolable grief. He manages to function well in the world so others don’t realize the depth of his pain. But on another level, the film is exhilarating because it is so well done and it reveals a fresh new talent in Tom Ford (who wrote, directed and produced).

Colin Firth with director Tom Ford.
The Weinstein Company
Colin Firth with director Tom Ford.

Coming from the fashion world you would expect “A Single Man” to be well designed and it is. “A Single Man” has some of the year’s best production design and along with “A Serious Man” it captures a time period better than anything else this year. The clothes, the make up, the homes, and the glasses they drink out of – all of it contributes to an exquisite sense of period detail. So I just want to emphasize that the perfection of the film’s design and execution is inspiring even if the material is something of a downer. So don’t stay away because it sounds like a grim tale.

The film also has the year’s best performance by an actor. This year had quite a number of fine male performances -- Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker,” Ben Foster in “The Messenger,” Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” -- but Firth edges out with the best. With grace, elegance, and subtle skill, Firth delivers a work of impressive understatement and honesty. He’s well matched by Julianne Moore whose Charley offers different shadings on similar themes of loss and loneliness, but her character is touched more by regret. The brighter energy in the film comes from Matthew Goode as Jim and Nicholas Hoult as Kenny as George’s past and possibly future love interests. It’s a fine ensemble with everyone working in perfect sync with each other.

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in "A Single Man"
The Weinstein Company
Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in "A Single Man"

Some may find the film too artfully done but Ford’s attention to detail ultimately pays off. He succeeds best at capturing and conveying George’s subjective point of view. Allowing viewer to get into a character’s head to know what’s going on is no easy task yet Ford’s shot selection, direction, and script allow us entry into George’s mind.

“A Single Man” (rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content) has no special effects, no shiny bells and whistles to lure viewers in. But in some ways the emotional nuances and flawless attention to detail on display in “A Single Man” is a rarity that’s as impressive as any state of the art special effects. So if you want some stylish, compelling, and intelligent filmmaking this holiday, go see “A Single Man.”

Companion viewing: “A Serious Man,” “’Night Mother,” “Gods and Monsters," "Savage Grace”

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