The Quiet Power of A Single Man

Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, is notable not only for Colin Firth’s subtle portrayal of a man struggling to live on after the sudden death of his longtime partner, but for how Ford employs the motif of silence to buffer his film’s inherently sentimental subject matter.  For example, in the film’s most overt portrayal of emotion, Ford cuts the sound as a distraught George (Firth), a reserved British intellectual, bursts into a grief-filled torrent of tears.  In the typical melodrama, every sob and wail would be lingered over — with swelling music no less — but here Ford buffers the expected cinematic excess by having the viewer experience the loss of a loved one through an auditory loss. In an essentially realist film that focuses on human relationships, silence allows Ford to evoke authentic emotion while avoiding one of the great problems, indeed, paradoxes of realism: how to realistically portray human experience without succumbing to sentimentality.  After all, real life is messy; people cry and wail.

Instead of violent emotion, A Single Man achieves its effects more subtly like Pixar’s Up, by imbuing everyday objects with powerful emotional, sensual associations.  In the car crash that killed Jim, for example, the two terriers they had raised together, surrogate children, also died.  Later in the film, as George plans suicide, he reexperiences this lost love bond through the scent of toast and butter on another terrier’s fur.  As George lingers in this quiet reunion, his reluctance to end the moment suggests the power of the commonplace in our lives, of how certain textures and smells recall the irretrievable objects of our past.

The theme of silence which resonates subtly throughout A Single Man, of course, is also a reminder of the real tragedy of George’s loss: that his grief has been censored by a society which demands his invisibility.  He is not allowed the benefit of condolence and ritual by participating in Jim’s funeral; he is excluded and denied the status of an official “family member.”  His last sixteen years with his partner have been omitted from the record.  Through this erasure by uncontrollable external forces, as demonstrated by the repeated metaphor of a man quietly drowning in the ocean, the film suggests, especially in George’s final moments, that suffering is most extreme when experienced in silence.

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