A SINGLE MAN directed by Tom Ford (USA, 2009) based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood.
When I first saw this movie I hadn’t read the book on which it is based.
I have just watched it again after being hugely impressed and deeply moved by Isherwood’s flawless novella.
Tom Ford’s expert adaptation is faithful to the story yet makes key changes; some for better, some for worse.
Note that this post contains spoilers.Don't say I didn't warn you!
The film is perfectly cast – Colin Firth manages to look immaculately tortured as George; strong but vulnerable. His involuntary single-hood is due to the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash.
Although set in 1962, on the cusp of the sexual revolution, theirs is still a love that dare not speak its name. The movie gives greater prominence to their relationship and rightly so as it is key to George’s growing sense of alienation and depression.
George’s homosexuality makes him an outsider in the comfortable LA suburbs where he lives. Surrounded by annoying nuclear families. Isherwood portrays him as a kind of prisoner in this community worn down by the blandness of the lives. He observes drily that “breeding and Bohemianism do not mix”.
He is a college lecturer in literature but does not have high hopes for his students; they are “male and female raw material which is fed daily into this factory, along the conveyor belts of the freeways, to be processed, packaged and placed on the market”.
As in the novel, the movie follows the events of a single day (November 30) in which he has dinner with a lonely and eccentric English friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and several meetings/flirtations with a precocious student, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult). In these encounters George is the model of poise and sexual restraint but you feel the inner turmoil that consumes him.
The manner in which the movie depicts George’s preoccupation with his mortality is the biggest change from the novel.
Whereas Isherwood subtly alludes to Georges’ suicidal tendencies, these are made explicit in the movie as we see him making preparations to shoot himself. The novel is the more powerful for showing George as a man at the mercy of his fate.
In both book and film, the day ends with a fatal heart attack but the movie cannot hope to reproduce the memorable way in which Isherwood prefaces this event with a sublime mix of poetry and hard-edged realism.
Before he dies, Isherwood writes this marvelous passage:
“But that long day ends at last; yields to the nighttime of the flood. And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean–that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost star”.
Director, Tom Ford cannot hope to do justice to such eloquence but gamely attempts to reference such evocative imagery by arty underwater shots in which George appears to be floating then half drowning.
Wisely, Ford and co-screenwriter David Scearce do not include Isherwood’s chilling description of George’s corpse which closes the novel: “This is now cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch. Both will have to be carted away and disposed of, before too long”.
More often than not, great novels make mediocre movies but A Single man is a notable exception. Nevertheless, although Ford’s is an intelligent and understated film, it is the Isherwood’s fearless prose which makes the deepest impact.