"I was never terribly fond of waking up"
Based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood and written, produced and directed as his debut feature length film by Tom Ford, A Single Man left me somewhat cold after I originally watched this in early 2010 but I've starkly reappraised my first impressions after re-watching this for the purposes of this blog. I was always in awe of Colin Firth's central performance and this appreciation grew ever stronger with my recent repeat viewing, as did my appreciation of Julianne Moore's brilliant supporting role and those from Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode and Jon Kortajarena. But what particularly struck me on re-watching this film seven years on from it's initial release was how well crafted A Single Man is, from Ford's direction and his choice of oblique and unusual camera angles and numerous extreme close up shots that place us as the audience in the shoes of the characters so well. For his choice of slow motion sequences and flashbacks and particularly a repeated use of reflections, be they via windows or Colin Firth's glasses all of which continually reinforce the turbulent and anxious nature of the main characters. The film is edited frenetically at times, juxtaposing many differing images in a blur of time and thus again constantly confirming the conflicted minds at play here, with Joan Sobel deserving of special praise for her editorial skills, as does Director of Photography Eduard Grau for his pitch perfect reflection of the time period (late 1940's through to the early Cold War of the 1960's) and his colour palette that's slightly drained and de-saturated, through to the moonlit dip in the ocean towards the end of the film. After re-watching A Single Man I have just a single gripe with the film, and that is that it's two minutes too long! If only the film ended with Colin Firth stood beside the fireplace of his sumptuous home reflecting on his day it would have been an almost perfect film for me. But alas we have a further two minutes of screen time following this and an ending that perhaps we as an audience didn't deserve. Although given the ninety minutes that precede this moment, it's maybe not the ending many of the audience may expect.
A Single Man follows the final day in the life of "George" (Colin Firth) an English Professor still grieving after the death of his boyfriend of 16 years "Jim" (Matthew Goode). Unable to come to terms with and fully reconcile the passing of the man he deeply loved, George resolves to take his own life at the end of the day ahead. Haunted by dreams and nightmares of his late boyfriend he wakes every day simply wishing he hadn't, before donning a metaphorical suit of armour to meet every new day and as he narrates aptly "to play the part of George". He feels he's "sinking" and "drowning" and this is expertly realised by Director Ford with his shot of a melancholic George staring out of the window of his home but with the lower half of his legs obscured by the reflection and camera angle cleverly used (see picture section). One final day of schooling and time to put his affairs in order before a final late night dinner with his long term friend and neighbour "Charley" (Julianne Moore) however two further events are to shape his destiny before the day is out.
Of the 23 credited roles in A Single Man, 5 consistently stand out with Colin Firth naturally taking centre stage in every sense and rightly accorded an Oscar nomination for an Actor in a Leading Role in 2010. With his perfect English diction and faraway melancholic air of despair, Firth is sublime in a deliberately understated way and never grandstanding in his role as George. Adored by women and somewhat surrounded by them at times, he reciprocates this adoration through compliments and through his thoroughly English gentleman air which is perfectly encapsulated in his relationship with Charley. They are clearly dependant on each other and a reflection of the other, both sharing feelings of being sorry for oneself and a perceived injustice at the world despite the opulent lifestyles they both enjoy. In her minimal screen time in a supporting role Julianne Moore excels as the melancholic hedonist Charley who simply relies on, and can't be without, the crutch that George provides in her life. Jim appears both in flashbacks and George's dreams but in what could be argued as an almost reincarnation of Jim is "Kenny" (Nicholas Hoult), a late teen student obsessed with his Professor. Their joint scenes are a marvel of the film as well as indicative of the many awkward juxtapositions in George's life, with his desires played against the mundane reality of the day, his desires for another juxtaposed with his grief for his lost love and never is this more starkly apparent than in his accidental meeting with James Dean lookalike "Carlos" (Jon Kortajarena) which is brilliantly shot against a billboard background for Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho" (see picture section above).
"One must always appreciate life's little gifts" proclaims George in a more upbeat moment of a film that despite it's general air of melancholy can be sardonically and darkly humourous. Themes of death, loneliness, fear of the post Cold War future but especially the value we place on human interactions pervade a film that truly won me over on a recent second viewing and would have been damn near perfect had it ended just two minutes sooner, but that shouldn't detract from a glorious and ultra stylish debut film from Tom Ford.
"Do you ever feel your life turning into something you never intended?"
Based on Austin Wright's novel "Tony and Susan" and adapted for the screen by Director Ford, there is much to admire in Nocturnal Animals and a film I instantly adored on first viewing and a love that has grown stronger with every subsequent re-watch since. As with his first film above Ford has helmed, in strong collaboration with stars both in front of and behind the camera, a truly absorbing, intriguing and stylish film. Kudos in all directions behind the scenes: for Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey and three returnees from Ford's previous film in the shape of Editor Joan Sobel, Costume Designer Arianne Phillips and Composer Abel Korzeniowski, whose musical composition particularly stands out as a beautiful piece of accompanying music that in it's grandest moments is eerily reminiscent of the haunting quality of Jerry Goldsmith's score for Basic Instinct in 1992 and similar in tone and feel to his previous musical work on A Single Man. In front of the camera are some incredible performances that garnered just a single Oscar nomination in 2017 but which should have gathered many more, particularly Amy Adams in her central performance as an angst and regret filled Art Gallery Owner and for Jake Gyllenhaal's dual supporting role which is both thunderous and heart breaking at times. The single Oscar nomination fell to Michael Shannon for his immense portrayal of a gruff local detective with nothing left to lose as he chases down three of the most cowardly and reprehensible characters to have hit the cinema screen in some time.
What particularly impresses me on every re-watch of this remarkable and sublime film is the weaving of the three distinct narratives that run concurrently through the film as we have a present day depiction seamlessly blending into a marriage and relationship of 19 years previously and of a visceral representation of the novel that lends itself to the name of the film, Nocturnal Animals. Each separate strand of the narrative is starkly different and distinct from each other yet is brilliantly edited by Joan Sobel and realised through the excellence of the vision of both Director Ford and the lens of his Director of Photography, Seamus McGarvey. Where the present day is cold, distant and sterile, the 19 year previous moment in time is far warmer, vibrant and bright yet both of these time periods are juxtaposed against the tense, grittier and violent telling of the story contained within the novel which is exclusively read (often shot from above and in extreme close up) by "Susan Morrow" (Amy Adams). A fabulously wealthy Art Gallery Owner living in stunning opulence overlooking Los Angeles, Morrow is clearly depressed and caught in a melancholic funk that she even questions herself with a pointed rhetorical question of "What right do I have to be unhappy? I have everything", but whilst she has every material advantage in her life she describes the art displayed in her gallery as "junk" and "I don't care about the art" but this betrays much deeper issues, that of a cold and distant marriage to "Hutton Morrow" (Armie Hammer), of her dream life simply not fulfilling her and deep regrets on her past that re-surface when sent the Nocturnal Animals novel by her ex husband "Edward Sheffield" (Jake Gyllenhaal). Adams dominates the present day narrative of the film with her snooty, spoiled and somewhat vacuous character Morrow particularly well as, for all her character flaws, Morrow draws sympathy from the audience as the present day period unravels. Fearful of comparisons with her Mother "Anne Sutton" (Laura Linney) she is quite literally an empty shell full of angst and unhappiness and quite apart from the self satisfied art world she is surrounded by and typified by her friends "Alessia Holt" (Andrea Riseborough) and "Carlos Holt" (Michael Sheen). It is to Carlos who exemplifies the hyper reality they enjoy in their exalted social standing with his pertinent comment of "Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It's a lot less painful than the real world". However Susan Morrow cannot enjoy the absurdity of the art world or indeed escape the vacuous and painful nature of her own real world and escapes into the fictional world created by her ex husband.
Nocturnal Animals the novel is dedicated to Susan and sent to her by ex husband Edward Sheffield for many reasons, it was his nickname for her during their marriage 19 years ago, it's a proclamation that he is indeed a fiction writer after all these years and despite her cold and unsupportive manner during their marriage (which narrative unravels during one of the three strands of the story) and of the violent criminals depicted within the novel. The realisation of the novel itself is perhaps the largest of the three narrative strands and is noir in nature as well as viscerally violent and often particularly distasteful with the opening ten minute segment incredibly tense and often particularly difficult to watch and comprehend as "Tony Hastings" (Jake Gyllenhaal in his second role of the film), "Laura Hastings" (Isla Fisher) and their daughter "India Hastings" (Ellie Bamber) are rammed off the road by three violent and reprehensible thugs headed by "Ray Marcus" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It is skin crawling and utterly terrifying. Edward Sheffield always reinforced to Susan during their marriage that he could only write from a personal perspective and so it's no surprise that Susan "reads" her ex husband in the role of Tony in the novel and it's also evident that Laura Hastings is clearly a stand in for the real life Susan but what is abundantly clear in the aftermath of the horrific car chase is the no nonsense determination and approach of local Detective "Bobby Andes" (Michael Shannon) to catch those responsible and see justice prevail in any way necessary. Perma smoking despite admittedly dying of cancer, Michael Shannon's Oscar nominated performance as the unorthodox, straight talking and somewhat reckless Detective Bobby Andes is but one of a number of superb performances throughout the three story lines of Nocturnal Animals. As already noted, Amy Adams excels in the film's central role and is ably supported by the cameo roles also previously noted but Jake Gyllenhaal's dual roles of an optimistic and forward thinking writer and devastated husband and father in the novel story line are so vastly different and so excellently realised in yet another impressive and worthy performance in Gyllenhaal's ever expanding cannon of great, really great, cinematic work.
Nocturnal Animals is a film I cannot recommend highly enough and a film that often stays with me long after the final credits have rolled. Tom Ford has again created an ultra stylish and ultra stylised film that is crisp and clear on screen and with an engaging and unique confluence of ideas and stories that always pleases on repeat viewings. With the three concurrent stories often merging across a single motif and then back again into a previous narrative it could, in the wrong hands, jar and alienate it's audience. But it never does and with the stylish visuals and stellar performances all combine to produce an outstanding and intriguingly unique film.