by Juan Espinosa
Through the use of attention-grabbing visual techniques, Tom Ford creates a masterpiece in his directing debut in cinema. Creating such a vivid interpretation of the novel on which the film is based, Ford’s main challenge in making A Single Man was to transform a story that was all about a man talking to himself into a world where we can see exactly what the novel’s author, Christopher Isherwood intended for us to imagine. With the novel having to focus all on words to get the story across, the film transforms those words into visual form exceptionally well.
In 1964, Christopher Isherwood, an iconic English novelist, published A Single Man, a story about a middle-aged English professor named George who is living out his last day. George spends his last mortal day paying close attention to every detail of his surroundings as he gives himself a penetrating last look at life. The novel was adapted into an award winning major motion picture in 2009 that was the directing debut of world renown fashion designer, Tom Ford. Both film and book have a core relation to each other, but the dissimilar ways in which the book and the film tell the story directly reflects the personal lives of the author and filmmaker: through background, character and personal love lives.
Immediately the visual design of the film grabs the viewer, providing a strong guiding hand to the overall mood and atmosphere of George’s world. There is a notable transition from very dull and sad colors as he (our “hero”) goes through his daily life, to images that are vivid, warm and strong. The undeniable message is that this character is taking a close, careful, and youthful look at life. The angles of the camera and where it is focused during these times of vividness shows the detailed orientation of the main character’s concentration. This careful and rigorous look gives the feeling that the camera is absorbing all which it observes. Add in the music of composer, Abel Korzeniowski and the tone and mood of George’s character is complete.
Author, Isherwood and filmmaker, Ford tell two very different personal stories through A Single Man. Isherwood wrote the novel out of fear of losing his lover, Don Bachardy after Don had left him for many months to live on the other side of the country with another man. Imaging as if Don died, Isherwood wrote A Single Man as if he was a widower. The story directly reflects all of what was going on inside Christopher’s head. When transforming the novel into a film, Ford tells the story through his personal perspective while using his intricate techniques as a fashion designer to give the audience a film they will never forget. His obsession for perfection allows him to adjust the plot exactly the way he wants and drives him to construct a cinematic experience so vivid and flawless. With every detail being attended to, the film is completely his own creation.
Although both author and filmmaker are gay icons, they did not emphasize the main character, George as being a homosexual man. He was just a man. As in most of his stories, Isherwood writes in a biographical manner. He expresses his life experiences, which is the reason for most of the main characters being gay. Yet, the most interesting part of his style of writing is that he does not write as if the character is straight or gay, he writes as if they are just ordinary human beings. This is the same view on life with which Ford focuses within his fashion ads. These two men live in different eras, yet they share many similar experiences and view points.
George (played by Colin Firth), is coping with the loss of his partner, Jim, whom he loved deeply. Jim died in a car crash on his way to visit his family, and unfortunately, George was asked by Jim’s brother to not attend the funeral because of the family’s homophobia. Since that day, George’s life is cold and melancholy. He no longer has any enjoyment or interest since the accident. He lost his lover, whom he had for quite some years. With the intergenerational homosexual relationship being the dynamic of the association of the two, both Ford and Isherwood could directly relate. Tom Ford and his partner, Richard Buckley have a thirteen year age gap between them. And Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy have a thirty year gap. The difference though is that Ford is the younger partner in the relationship as Isherwood was the older. Yet, the unique vibrancy of their relationships is correspondingly understood by both.
Ford was able to relate very well to Isherwood’s love life and personal issues, which inspired him to transform the book into a film. A fascinating coincidence about the three most important people from the story: Isherwood (the author), Ford (the director) and Colin Firth (who plays George), is that of their personalities. In an interview, Ford distinctively points out, “This might sound silly to some of you – I don’t know – but Christopher Isherwood was a Virgo. Virgos are precise, almost uptight. It’s all about precision and order and I’m a Virgo. Colin Firth is a Virgo. This was the Virgo, Virgo, Virgo film”. He explained how the harmonic of the three worked very well in knowing how the story should be portrayed and delivered to the audience and to satisfy themselves. Another interesting strategy Ford used in the film is, besides the main character, he had all the American actors speak in British accents and all the British actors speak in American accents: Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, etc. All-in-all, the direction Tom Ford took on the film was outstanding.
In both the work of literature and that of the cinematic, the personal lives of Christopher Isherwood and Tom Ford are individually reflected by the same core story through their own works. One of the most amazing things that is indeed an exceptional occurrence is that even though the novel and film have many differences and personal intents, they both work out perfectly to tell the same story with the same meaning. A Single Man brings to light a delicate insight of the true internal emotions of two separate men. Whether in a book or on the screen, that is a work of art.