In A Single Man, Colin Firth is George Falconer, a 50-something English professor living in L.A. (although he's a native of England) in 1962. Since the death of his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), George wakes up, he gets dressed, he goes to work, he comes home, and everything in between is so painfully contrived that he operates more like a machine than a man. Still, there are glimmers of life amidst his cookie cutter existence.
Living in a Leave it to Beaver-style neighborhood, George chafes against the provincialism of his surroundings and maintains a faux-sophisticated relationship with his old chum Charley (Julianne Moore), also English, the two of them isolated expatriates, unsure of their roots anymore. George is cynical, Charley pretends not to be, and the gin flows freely in their tumultuous meeting that night (this story unfolds in the course of one 24-hour-period, with flashbacks of George's former life with Jim). Charley is George's only friend, and yet there's a distance between them that George maintains. She was the one, however, that he went to the night he received word that Jim had died in Michigan in a car accident (and that he wasn't welcome at Jim's funeral).
George approaches this day with a new-found determination. He's going to kill himself.
Tom Ford, who started out his career as a production designer, makes his directing debut with A Single Man, which spends so much time in close-up that we practically become experts of the actors' pores. It's a glossy affair, one that seems at times like postcards extracted from the early 60s, and at other times recalls the sumptuous intensity of a 1950's soaper, not unlike an earlier film starring Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven).
Christopher Isherwood's book, though very literate, is also inherently cinematic in the way it unfolds, and so the task of screenwriter David Scearce isn't one of selecting and arranging but of heightening the dramatic appeal. There hasn't been a movie this visually opulent for a long while, and I think we can attest to Ford's prowess as a production designer that the movie looks so good, and not just good, but seamlessly rich in detail; at times it appears pretentious, but there's such a thread of humor about the whole production that it takes the wind out of the deliberately high drama.
The performance by Colin Firth is top notch, somewhat reminiscent of Laurence Olivier, but then this is the kind of part that seems almost too obviously geared toward winning an award. And yet Firth does it justice, maintaining the clinched, formal composure that offsets the visual razzle-dazzle. There's a lot of Vertigo in this movie, particularly in the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, as well as the voyeuristic approach Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau take to the movie. There are constant close-ups of lips and eyes and legs and backs and bodies floating in the water...it's very European without losing its Hollywood-ness.
A Single Man isn't for every taste, but it deserves much praise for what it does well and what it doesn't do. Its deadly serious subject matter could have been a lot heavier and therefore a lot grimmer if not for the humor and the visual largesse that constantly reminds us we're watching a movie. ★★★