Life is beautiful, especially as you prepare to end it.
George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English literature professor at a Los Angeles college in the early 1960s, is adrift in a world of California sensuality. George, a dapper, closeted gay man, sees it all through eyes clouded with grief and loneliness.
Last night a phone call announced the death of his longtime partner in a car crash. The voice on the line explained that George is excluded from the funeral. It’s “for family only.” Pain creases George’s face but his voice remains steady. The tears don’t begin until the phone is back in the cradle.
“Just get through the goddamn day,” George tells himself next morning in the bathroom mirror. He dresses fastidiously, his impeccable wardrobe a costume to hide what a hollowed-out shell he has become. He heads to work with a loaded revolver in his briefcase. He’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.
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“A Single Man” is the first film directed by fashion magnate Tom Ford, who displays a mature film sensibility. It is as gorgeous as you would expect, and surprisingly large-hearted. Thanks to Dan Bishop’s lush production design and cinematographer Eduard Grau’s inventive visuals, each languorous image is as sleek as a page from a 1962 Vogue.
The surface effects contribute to the emotionally complex story. Grau’s palette shifts from monochromes to vibrant colors depending on George’s moods.
All the urgent passion he cannot show is expressed in turns of the color wheel. Abel Korzeniowski’s musical score is haunting, evocative of passion and loss.
The film is loosely adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, which unspools as an interior monologue. With minimal narration and masterful film technique, Ford tells the story sensitively, but not solemnly.
There’s dry humor in George’s suicidal funk. Every ticking clock seems about to toll funeral chimes. Yet life keeps handing him reasons to carry on.
His attempts to exit are continually frustrated. He can’t get the bed pillows arranged quite right for his final slumber, or there’s a distracting knock at the door, or a dinner invitation from his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), another British expatriate with good martinis, gossip and Booker T’s “Green Onions” on the turntable. George is unsure how to handle the insistent advances of a handsome, enigmatic student (Nicholas Hoult) and a Latino James Dean (Jon Kortajarena) who tries to hustle him in a parking lot. George’s lust — and lust for life — keeps kicking in.
Firth is captivating as George. Gay professional men in the 1960s couldn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Firth captures George’s repression and wounded dignity in a still performance with deep undercurrents of feeling. His boozy dinner scene with Moore is the film’s highlight. Charley and George shared a long-ago fling and she still carries a torch for him.
The tension between her fiery neurosis and his icy decorum sizzles when they reminisce, flirt and fight as old friends do.
It’s one of those rare, rich scenes where we have the feeling of eavesdropping on actual friends rather than watching a performance.
This impressive debut by Ford proves that in film as in fashion, an eye for telling details is the key to a promising career.