Tom Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man (2009) is based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novella of the same name, but has its own unique style. Drawing both from personal experience and his professional background in fashion design, Ford gives the narrative a powerful aesthetic focus. Making full use of the cinematic medium, he lets the standout performances and Abel Korzeniowski’s magnificent musical compositions speak for themselves.
Isherwood’s main character remains oblique in the impersonal narration that begins the book, masked in a body’s motions as it wakes up, until the processes of nerves and muscles slowly become George. In the first few minutes of the film, while the opening credits appear, a male body floats submerged in the vast depths of green-blue water, alluding at once to the ocean and the womb. The camera focuses on the man’s limbs, neatly cutting his head out of the image, and leaving him faceless. This echoes Isherwood’s opening paragraphs: here, too, is an anonymous body which lacks identity, and consciousness.
The undefined darkness of the water is eventually intercut by the image of snow, harder and more tangible, but still with a blueish tinge. Sounds of wheels squeaking and glass breaking disrupt the score. The crashed car lies still in the falling snow, as George (Colin Firth) approaches the lifeless body of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode), lays down beside him and kisses his lips. The last shots of what turns out to be a dream sequence are extreme closeups of milky eyes staring out of a bloodied face. Then George wakes up with a start.
Here, George begins his voiceover by quoting the opening lines of Isherwood’s novella: “waking up begins with saying am and now,” before the film diverges from the original text. The camera again focuses on details, leaving visual cues in place of words while George rises towards consciousness.
He is barely awake, nearly naked on top of his sheet, a puddle of ink wet near his hand; his stained fingers brush against his lips as he recalls the kiss of the dream-memory, and leave a mark. The images Ford has chosen for his adaptation’s beginning hold within them the key to George’s story even before the continued voiceover elaborates on the grief of losing his partner. A series of images, combined with the haunting strings of the original score, instantly convey an incredible depth of emotion.
The adaptation takes plenty of liberties: it strays from the description of characters, dressing George and his best friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) in tailored suits and gowns instead of their counterparts’ rumpled and forgettable clothing, using the distinctly recognisable style of the early 1960s to locate the narrative in time.
It also transforms George’s passive reluctance to continue living in the book into an active desire to die, as the film indicates with a small revolver. More subtly, he makes the decisive statement that “today will be different”, before he goes on to get his affairs in order.
Knowing that George plans to end his life adds tension to the film as the viewer accompanies him through his day, and frequent shots of clocks on the wall serve as a reminder that his time is running out. The film holds little action, instead letting the delicate cinematography capture the dreariness of George’s daily routine, often focusing on details in closeup shots. He goes through the motions as if automated, and via his clothes, he slips on the mask of George without ever truly inhabiting it.
A Single Man uses colour to offer a striking sense of George’s inner world. The dullness of his present state of mind is underlined by muted tones that only shift from their desaturated pallor to vibrant hues of red and orange in rare moments when George is given cause to feel alive again: during his interactions with certain people (or dogs), the film is momentarily imbued with warmth, which often fades again as quickly as it flared up.
Among the people who (quite literally) brighten up George’s perception of the world is one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who leaves his mark on George’s final hours. Ultimately, it is because of Kenny’s vibrant influence that George decides against committing suicide.
Ford inserts another dream sequence towards the last minutes of the film: again there is a body floating in water, but this time warm light suffuses the scene. The voiceover begins again – and then, just as everything is as it should be, George suffers a heart attack, and the clock stops ticking. In another echo of the beginning, there is Jim, kneeling down next to George and kissing him, closing the circle and thus completing the film.
Ford’s respect for Isherwood’s text is obvious, both in the film itself and his efforts to get it made. It lies in the nature of an adaptation that there is a personal, subjective interpretation of the primary source – the choice of the narrative focus, the casting of characters, and every other decision made along the way all ultimately reflect the filmmaker’s vision. A Single Man, then, shows Ford’s unique reading of the novella: the adaptation at once stays true to the essence of its foundation and is transposed, becoming its own distinct work of art.