A Single Man is a thing of controlled, mannered precision. In fact, it’s so in love with its beautiful surfaces the film could slide effortlessly, painlessly off you if it wasn’t for Colin Firth’s Oscar-nominated performance at its center. But with Firth anchoring it, A Single Man ends up one of the best films of 2009.
In designer-turned-first-time-director Tom Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man, Colin Firth’s careful, aching work is so good, so nuanced, so magnified by restraint that not only does it make the film well worth watching, but it pulls the entire work together. As a result, A Single Man becomes something so much more than a retro fetishizing of both ‘60s style and pre-Stonewall homosexual marginalization—it’s a film that draws you in with beautiful melancholy but then—like the lovely, mournful cello music throughout–leaves you with a larger, richer warmth.
A Single Man follows George Falconer–a British-born California lit professor numbed by the death of his longtime companion–on what he intends to be the last day of his life. It’s been eight months since his partner Jim (Matthew Goode in flashbacks) died in a car accident and George rises and proceeds to plan his suicide with exactly the same meticulous, buttoned-down preparation and obsessive neatness as he dresses each morning. Not surprisingly, Ford the fashion designer loves as director to linger on the buttoning of a crisp, clean white shirt; the brushing of slick leather shoes; and yes, the arranging of farewell notes, keys, insurance policies and a loaded revolver on a desk top.
George’s old friend and ex-pat Brit Charley tries to tug him from his deepening fugue state, but as perfectly played by the great Julianne Moore, Charley is sinking ship herself, a boozy bit of wreckage still maintaining the illusion of life with smoky poise and a broad laugh. Both she and George paint on a pretty surface to feign daily survival, but while George knows it’s only a façade, Charley still believes the lies she tells herself between cigarettes and gin.
Also making his way into orbit around George is one of his students, a bright, charismatic young dreamer pushing his way toward the ‘60s counter-culture still a few years over the horizon. Nicholas Hoult, the middle-schooler in About a Boy, has grown into a broadly grinning, confident young man–drenched in the California sun, Hoult resembles more than a little a pre-Top Gun Tom Cruise.
And Matthew Goode (Leap Year, Watchmen) continues to position himself on the brink of a major Hollywood breakthrough—he’s somewhat handicapped in his portrayal of Jim in that we only see the character through George’s idealized memories, but Goode has that almost supernatural ability (shared with the Pitts and Clooneys of the film world) to make his easy, natural handsomeness come off as warm, strong and welcoming instead of pushy or overbearing.
Ford is here to celebrate artifice—A Single Man luxuriates in its moments, hovering in a swoon of nostalgia not just for the clothes and “modern” architecture of the Cuban Missile Crisis era (history is unfolding quietly in the background) but for the literary pretensions of the time. As in Todd Haye’s 2oo2 Far From Heaven (also starring Moore) and Sam Mendes Revolutionary Road last year, Douglas Sirk’s color-soaked melodrama is the guiding cinematic light in A Single Man. That makes for a film rich with stunning visuals and modern (as opposed to post-modern) dramatic idealization–but if unbalanced, it could have left you with the same feeling you get when you go to a hipster couple’s home and they’ve stocked their bar with perfect vintage and retro glass and decanter sets.
Firth keeps A Single Man from sliding into that sort of mimicry–without the actor’s talent, George’s stoic pain might have come off like a GQ photo shoot. But Firth plays out the glimpses of life and emotion left within—an touching scene with a stranger’s dog, as nuzzling the pet reminds George of his perfect life with Jim, is followed by George’s final suicide preparations, played for stiff-upper-lipped comedy as George’s compulsive neatness gets in the way of his mortal intentions.
George’s homosexuality is obviously a major focus in A Single Man —far from repressed in his sexuality, he’s still socially closeted in 1962. The point is driven home by his classroom lecture on Huxley that brings up the quote “They hated me without a cause” and mulls over how an invisible threat (such as Communism or homosexuality) can be used to fan fear, and then that fear used to manipulate. In counterbalance, Ford paints George’s life and love as a celebration of both the sensual and the deeply emotional.
But eventually that theme—like George’s own homosexuality—becomes part of a larger tapestry, a larger life. A Single Man is not just about a gay man coping with grief in the early ‘60s. It’s an ode to the often-futile quest for clarity—all that careful arranging and polishing of clothes and shoes to find meaning in order, while the true moments come at you sideways, unplanned, unexpected. Death weaves its dark way throughout A Single Man, but the film sublimely captures those rare glimpses of light when it all makes sense.