A Single Man is Tom Ford's first film and, with it, the successful fashion designer has proven that his talents have a wide breadth. He has created an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel that is mature both emotionally and technically.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged college professor living in early ninteen-sixties California. Lost in the wake of the sudden death of his longtime partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), he has been floating through his life in a stupor. So, on this day in late November, he plans to kill himself. Ford's script, written along with David Scearce, leads us through the day slowly, intermittently providing flashbacks to George's past with Jim, but focusing on a number of encounters with other characters. There is the booze-addled Charley (Julianne Moore), an old friend of George's. There is the vanilla family that lives across the street. There is the young prostitute (Jon Kortajarena) that George encounters outside of a liquor store. Most predictably, there is also the student (Nicholas Hoult) who is fascinated by George. Each encounter serves to illustrate George's detachment, but also his desire to connect with another person.
It may all sound trite, but each relationship has its complexities and George is never quite as sullen as one would expect him to be. He is strangely fascinated with the people around him. He pores over every physical detail of the women he meets, seemingly searching for a crack in their thick armor of make-up, hair and couture. He buys time with the prostitute simply to have a conversation with him and coyly accepts a joking gift from the student. Charley seems to suit him best, though. She wears her armor ineffectually, letting her true self hang out – something a man who must remain mostly closeted has to admire. Yet, George is forced to maintain a certain distance from Charley, as her feelings for him run far deeper than they should. He is truly a man suspended in the world around him.
Ford's direction, aided by Eduard Grau's cinematography, conveys this surrealism ably. George lives in a house that features many, large windows, but when he is inside, the camera never sees past the walls of shrubbery surrounding it. When George peers outside to spy on his neighbors, he never shares the frame with them, creating such a disconnect that one almost wonders if the two scenes are taking place on the same planet. When he enters the outside world, its colors are noticeably desaturated, only fading in at certain moments. The technique is a bit conspicuous, but it is also beautifully cryptic. The blood suddenly returns to characters' faces and the world around them comes to life, creating fleeting moments that have no obvious connection to each other beyond providing a hint of what George is searching for.
At the core of it all, however, is a performance that is surprisingly honest. Colin Firth may play George as a reserved man, but he never lets the humanity leave the character. Even as he retreats to the furthest corners of George's mind, distant emotions play across his face. He is not afraid to let George be warm and lighthearted at moments and he does so without compromising the tragic nature of the character.
Yet, calling Firth's performance a highlight would be selling the rest of the film short. Tom Ford has created an entrancing film that uses images of considerable beauty to explore the depths of one man's grief. Always vivid but never contrived, this is one of those films that will leave you sitting through the credits, pondering its many emotional truths.
In the past few years, the Academy has made a point of giving recognition to films about gay characters. Brokeback Mountain and Milk made the orientation of their protagonists the overt source of the films' drama. A Single Man, however, has matured beyond that point. Being closeted is simply a fact of life for George, only underlying a greater sense of grief. Ford's film is far more interested in telling a story about one man than it is in distilling the struggles of an entire group of people. Because of this, I doubt that the Academy will be as quick to recognize the quality of the film. For many, that would be proof enough that this is a truly good film. They would be right.