The night I finished reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964), two thoughts went through my head: first, where’s the Kleenex? Because I was a sniffly, teary mess. And second, I prayed that Tom Ford had not found some way to fuck up this beautiful, subtle novel.
One of those wishes came true, just not the important one. I’m not sure how it’s even possible to mangle such a straightforward story. A Single Man is one day in the life of George, a British professor living in California; this day is just one in a long line of days following the death of his partner, Jim. George’s loneliness pervades everything about his day and is amplified by the simple act of being gay in the 1960s – there is always a glass wall between George and his neighbors, between George and Jim’s family who never invited him to the funeral. We know very early on that much George’s pain is caused by not being able to grieve openly because his relationship was not considered legitimate by those around him.
There’s no doubt that Tom Ford created a visually stunning, beautifully cast film, but there are moments when it feels like he’s created a fashion editorial with a plot rather than a film that can stand on its own. There are too many lingering shots of intense gazes and pouty lips. There are some strange, blatantly incorrect casting decisions – Julianne Moore as the supposed-to-be dumpy dilapidated Charlotte, and frosty blonde Aline Weber as Lois…Yamaguchi? – and deviations from Isherwood’s tightly constructed plot that simply don’t make sense.
There are so many simple, factual things that were changed in the film. In the scene where Jim and George meet, Jim says he’s from Colorado. False. He’s from Ohio, it’s right on page 28. Why was that change even necessary? Charlotte is described as a “dogged survivor” whose beauty hasn’t exactly faded, but it’s not like she’s putting in any real effort – and yet we have a scene of Julianne Moore painstakingly applying eye makeup and she’s later seen looking fiercely elegant with her bouffant hair and evening dress. Why were her husband and son’s names changed from Buddy and Fred to Richard and Clay?
Lois Yamaguchi, the girlfriend of George’s student Kenny, has been transformed from Japanese to Nordic blonde at the expense of the defining conflict in her relationship. Both she and all-American Kenny know that their relationship has no real future, that she’s basically biding her time until she meets a Japanese man.
And would someone please explain to me where George’s gun and suicide plans came from? Because I’m pretty sure they didn’t come from Christopher Isherwood. He didn’t give George that kind of agency. George is a very sad, broken-down man who is desperately trying to just get through the day.
I can understand wanting to include George’s happy memories of Jim, played by Matthew Goode, but this is ultimately a story about George being alone. In the book, Jim’s absence is its own character, much like Kevin Costner’s Alex in The Big Chill. That negative space is meant to hang over the action of the story. Scenes with Jim would have been more effective if they were small flashbacks with the emphasis on flash, rather than whole scenes that take you away from the primary action. Isherwood only drops into the past once (and briefly) at the very end, providing a quick sketch of how George and Jim met. Tom Ford turned that into a five-minute scene that played at being joyful and sexy but felt very cluttered with people.
That kind of clutter is Ford’s biggest shortcoming as a director. Even the scenes in which Colin Firth is alone are crowded by unnecessary voice-over. The script is fairly close to Isherwood’s original text, except that Isherwood’s approach to the opening scenes is an almost academic study of how one wakes up and assumes their role in the world. It’s a very awkward, solitary chapter and reading through George’s private pre-George rituals feels like a violation of his space. Ford shows us some stylish still shots with well-chosen period props and furniture, but this scene is missing that not-quite-human, not-quite-awake haze and the accumulating dread of facing the world alone. The clutter of people and things continues throughout the film and robs George of his heartbreaking solitude.
My biggest gripe with the narration, which occurs only at the beginning and very end of the film, is that it means George knows too much. It’s a first person narration by Colin Firth adapted from Isherwood’s third person perspective. Using the third person allows us to start at a distance and slowly become drawn into the story; we learn and think and feel and see things only when and how George does. Changing that to the first person, especially in the final scene completely eliminates the element of surprise.
And believe me, you need Isherwood’s version of the element of surprise at the end. What makes the final scene so powerful is its subtlety; this is true of the entire book but doubly so at the end as George exits the world as alone and as quietly as he entered it on the first page. It’s an ending that doesn’t exactly sneak up on you, it’s more like a beautifully executed ghostly whisper.
Despite looking absolutely gorgeous – after all, Ford comes to us from the fashion world – the film is a heavy handed disaster. Isherwood’s mastery of delicacy and balance is completely trampled in a 93-minute span. Thank you somuch for that, Tom Ford. Anything else you’d care to ruin?