When I first read the script for A Single Man in 2008, I hated it. I generally react to scripts I dislike with a mixture of disappointment and indifference. It’s very rare that something’s so bland and devoid of apparent meaning that I actively hate it. A Single Man managed to accomplish that difficult feat.
Why? From page one, it fails to answer the most basic, screenwriting 101 question a writer should ask before starting a project: “Why does this story need to be told?” That’s not much more than a polite way of asking, “Who cares?” Either way, if the writer can’t answer the question, he or she probably should find something else to write about. Co-writers Tom Ford (the fashion designer) and David Scearce never attempt to answer that question. Obviously, Ford felt some sort of connection to Christopher Isherwood’s novel: in addition to co-writing, he produced, directed, and financed the project. However, any connection he may have to the material is neither present on the page nor on film. It’s like a museum: very cold, and very beautiful. Technical beauty is simply not enough.
Although this column is not called “Novel to Screen,” it can’t hurt to examine how the novel form compares to a screenplay. In a novel, a writer can have a character who sits around doing nothing, passing through a single uninteresting day, without getting into any conflict with others—without even interacting with others—and it can be fascinating, if the character is compelling and his worldview is unique and interesting. The same cannot be said for a film, no matter how good everything surrounding its story is. Films are works of drama, and the foundation of drama is conflict. Internal conflict is a tricky thing to pull off in film, because the audience has to understand the conflict, and pained silence only goes so far. Eventually, a writer has to start relying on more dangerous tricks of the medium—voiceovers, flashbacks, monologues. Great filmmakers can pull this off (see Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters for brilliant uses of all three techniques).
Ford, to put it bluntly, is neither a great filmmaker nor a great screenwriter, and A Single Man suffers from its dearth of conflict. I hated the screenplay because nothing interesting happens, and whenever something interesting comes close to happening, Ford and Scearce cut away to another flashback.. The redundant story, set in 1962, follows George (played by Colin Firth in the movie), a British college professor living in Los Angeles. An opening flashback makes it abundantly clear that George’s longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), died in a car accident one year earlier. George still grieves for him. The movie rinses and repeats three basic scene types: (1) a mournful-looking George preparing to commit suicide, (2) a mournful-looking George going through the motions during what he intends to be his last day on Earth, and (3) a slightly-less-mournful flashback to George’s life with Jim.
Ford might as well have titled it We Get It: The Movie. After the opening flashback, we understand the source of George’s internal conflict. To some extent, we even understand why he’s intending to commit suicide. Do we need a half-dozen more flashbacks showing George and Jim in happier times? In terms of the narrative: no—please God, no! In terms of practicality: well, the script runs a scant 87 pages, and the bulk of that consists of moody descriptions of George’s facial expressions and other characters’ wardrobe and makeup. The shorthand of the medium is “1 page = 1 minute,” making 87 pages barely feature length.
We understand George’s internal conflict—fine. Pretend the script doesn’t feature tons of other redundant flashbacks. What’s left? George goes through the motions of a typical day, and he seems oddly disconnected from other people. This fits: George considers Jim his one true love, so Jim’s death has made him turn his back on the outside world. It fits, but it’s not dramatically interesting. George meanders through a day, but he doesn’t seem terribly interested in any of it. This could have become a source of external conflict—George’s apathy frustrating his colleagues, neighbors, and friends, perhaps increasing his suicidal tendencies. Instead, George’s nonplussed reactions and polite, if terse, dialogue does nothing to build suspense, intrigue, or even further develop his character.
Opportunities for real dramatic tension creep into the third act, but it’s too little, too late. First, George has dinner with Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozehound friend who has spent much of her life disappointed that George won’t go straight and marry her. Later, one of George’s students (Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult) arrives unexpectedly at the same seaside bar where George met Jim 16 years earlier. (In reality, Kenny found out where George lived, staked out his place, and followed him to the bar to engineer the “chance meeting.”) George quickly finds himself smitten by Kenny. They go for an erotic late-night swim, after which George seems to realize how silly his suicidal plans are. And so, shortly after putting away the gun he’s spent most of the script staring at wistfully, George dies of a heart attack. The end.
It struck me as odd that George could be so easily pulled from the brink by a guy who, really, isn’t terribly interesting. Aside from looking good and being gay, he doesn’t offer much that should interest George, regurgitating pop psychology and talking about how great marijuana is. I did a little research on the source novel (without actually reading it myself, so pardon my ignorance if what I learned was incorrect) and discovered the suicide angle is an invention of the screenwriters. In the novel, George is just moderately depressed and unable to overcome his grief. Making George suicidal raises the stakes but instantly makes everything else harder to believe. He seems too disinterested in his life to really want to end it—apathy should never be confused for soul-crushing misery.
Even if they made the suicide angle believable, they have a much bigger challenge in making Kenny resonate enough to make George’s change of heart (no pun intended) convincing. Excising the suicide angle altogether wouldn’t make this a brilliant script, but at least the Kenny development would work. Hell, maybe the rest of the script would benefit from such a change. George’s fastidious preparations for suicide don’t match his laissez-faire approach to life in the rest of the script. Firth does his best to make the dichotomy work, but the burden is really on the writer. The flashbacks don’t illuminate enough about him to show a marked change in personality—they never suggest that meticulousness to the point of obnoxiousness once defined George, before grief and despair caused him to stop caring. At the end of it all, from page one to page 87, nothing in this screenplay really works, but maybe it could have in the hands of better adaptors.
A year later, long after I’d forgotten the existence of A Single Man, reviews trickled out during its limited theatrical release. Nearly all of them were positive. Huh, I thought, maybe this is one of the rare screenplays that doesn’t accurately reflect the film it would become.
So I watched the movie, and… Well… The acting is really good, almost in spite of Tom Ford. As producer/director, Ford assembled an ace cast, absorbed Mad Men‘s excellent production team to create the same early-’60s look, and trotted out every single trick in the “flashy director” playbook: weird jump cuts; variable-speed shots; super-slow motion; a rapidly transforming color palette; mise-en-scène more reminiscent of a photograph than a film; inundating the soundtrack with ambiance instead of dialogue. I’m sure I’m leaving something out.
All this excess detracts from the performances. Firth somehow manages to turn in a great performance in an emotionally hollow film. He works his ass off trying to serve as the emotional center, but every step of the way, Ford tosses in obnoxious flourishes that make Firth’s read on the character needlessly confusing. For instance, when George leaves for work in the morning, Ford shoots his drive down the street in super-slow-motion, lingering on George’s neighbors as he passes them, watching, playfully “shooting” the son dressed like an Indian. What the hell is the point of that? Neither Firth nor the script give a sense that, perhaps, George is missing something by not having a “normal” family, but that’s the only conclusion to be drawn from such unnecessary lingering on a scene any other writer/director would cut long before production.
It tempts me to say, “Well, Tom Ford is an artist, not a filmmaker.” That way, I could excuse the unnecessary stylistic showiness, chalking it up to inexperience and lack of confidence. It doesn’t feel like inexperience, though. It feels like distraction—from the fact that there’s no real story here, no matter what Firth does to prevent George from feeling as bland and dickish as he comes across on the page. In short: A Single Man is a small group of excellent performances in a terrible film that tries to gussy up its dullness with impeccably overwrought technical craftsmanship. It’s wonderful to look at and nothing else.
All of that started on the page, though. The script started out bad. The film makes many attempts to hide the flaws, but ultimately a work of drama can’t succeed when its characters are mostly inert. Potential for real drama exists within the script, particularly in George’s difficult relationship with Charley, but Ford fails to capitalize on these opportunities. The result is a frustrating, dramatically inert film. If this is Ford’s passion project, why does it feel so passionless?