A SINGLE MAN
Fashion designer – and world’s most stylish dude – Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with A Single Man, and boy won’t he let you forget it. An adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel about a day in the life of a college professor named George who is grieving for his dead lover, it’s a massively stylised film. Compositions are precise to the tiniest detail, colour is either ultra-saturated or bleached out. Protagonist Colin Firth’s suits (designed by Ford, of course), his minimalist house and even his thick-rimmed spectacles are the very essence of elegant chic. In other words, the film has the just-so look of a magazine fashion shoot, or at times the cod-poetic atmosphere of a perfume ad.
It’s all surface, but that’s kind of the point. George is an English professor at a Californian university, and a man whose emotional life is buried deep beneath the crisp uniform he’s constructed. Eight months ago his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode, seen in flashbacks to happier times), died in a car accident. This being the early Sixties, they were outwardly just friends living together, and George’s grieving has been in private. Deciding today will be his last, George goes to work, meets his fellow English ex-pat, old flame and gin-soaked divorcee Charlotte (Julianne Moore, over-acting), and has run-ins with Nicolas Hoult’s pretty-boy student, who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with him. All the while, he’s planning his death with the same ordered detachment with which he manages his life.
It’s an exceptionally sad film about loneliness and loss, and yet emotionally frustrating. In only one scene did I feel myself properly moved – a flashback to the phone call in which George learns of Jim’s death, and simultaneously realises he will not be allowed to attend the family-only funeral. Firth plays this with quiet magnificence, and it’s his performance that just about prevents Ford’s overworked visuals from squeezing the life out of the film.
This film’s premise is that Valentine’s Day is universally considered important. A bit like Christmas in Love Actually, the (far better) film to which it is being compared. To a cynical British audience, this presumption is just odd. There are radio shows waxing lyrical about Valentine’s Day with cheesy updates morning, noon and night. There are florists shops (one of which is owned, by Reed Bennet, played by Ashton Kutcher) completely rammed with Cupids and stud-muffins. And less credible still, everybody has something profound to say on the subject of luuurve. All of this just makes you say: “Really?” to yourself.
But the theme of the pursuit of love, that holy grail of Hollywood and Shakespeare alike, is not going to go away. And so we have a starry cast, so good-looking (even by LA standards, where the film takes place) that it’s almost too far-fetched to imagine any of them being desperate and lonely (Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner being the most preposterous). At the centre of the action is Kutcher’s Bennet, who is ditched by his super-successful girlfriend (Jessica Alba) half-way through the day. As a florist on Vday, he is privy to all sorts of information about who is sleeping with who – a fact that could hurt his best friend (Garner) who is falling for a married doctor. Then there’s Julia Roberts’ Kate, an army captain flying 14 hours to get home for the 14th to see a man that turns out to be, well, not what you’d expect. And Anne Hathaway’s Liz, who moonlights at a phone sex service, finds love with a guy (Topher Grace), who is only barely able to cope with her wily tricks.
Mostly, it’s two hours of cliché – women gobbling chocolate in despair; proposals gone wrong, predictable pairings and breakups – until it’s all over. If you’re feeling down in the dumps about Valentine’s Day, the happy endings here won’t cheer you up. If you’re feeling okay, the sickly sweet non-reality of the film will depress you.
In Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a camper van-dwelling drug-dealer and Lord of Misrule in a dead-end Wiltshire village, Mark Rylance has created an unforgettable stage character. Beginning the night by doing a handstand over a trough of water before downing a raw egg in a pint of speed-laced vodka and milk – he’s got a cracking hangover – Rooster spends the next three hours spinning yarns, entertaining his rag-tag friends, fending off local authorities, and drawing us gradually into the dark heart of the green and pleasant land.
Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary play, a hit at the Royal Court last year, now transferred to Shaftesbury Avenue, initially seems a simple satirising of our pert, nostalgic notions of rural England. The day after an epic party at his ad-hoc campsite, Rooster holds court among his retinue of local layabouts, including an abattoir worker, a couple of teenage girls, and Mackenzie Crook’s likeable dimwit. It is St George’s Day and the village fete is taking place, an old tradition reduced to an annual piss-up for these rude mechanicals, and the comic banter flies thick and fast, like an earthier Alan Ayckbourn.
But Rooster, the last in a long line of Romany folk to have occupied this woodland – the stunning set is surrounded by a forest of high trees – conjures up a world of older magic. Eyes gleaming, voice puffing like dry old bellows, he regales us with magnificent stories of meeting giants near a Little Chef on the A14, being kidnapped by traffic wardens or seeing children born with body hair and teeth. Darker themes creep in – a local girl is missing, Rooster’s son is bullied because of his dad, and impending tragedy hangs in the air.
Butterworth’s play is a lament to old Albion, to the myths and wild mysticism that have been replaced by neat, kitsch ideas of a rural England for those who can afford it. Never sentimental, it’s an epic in which you end up believing that Rooster Byron really can summon up pagan gods and rain down fire and brimstone upon Wiltshire. A modern (and ancient) classic.