Tom Ford, the first-time director of this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, is a fashion designer, and so it’s not surprising that “A Single Man” looks for all the world like a glossy magazine spread, with an elegant period milieu (by production designer Dan Bishop, art director Ian Phillips, set decorator Amy Wells and costume designer Arianne Phillips) set off by luminous widescreen cinematography by Eduared Grau. Happily the story it tells, slender though it is, has enough emotional resonance to add some genuine dramatic power to Ford’s parade of gorgeous images.
Much of the credit for that must go to Colin Firth, who stars as George, a gay Los Angeles professor mourning the death of his long-time lover Jim (Matthew Goode) in an auto accident. The year is 1962—a few fleeting references tell us that the events are occurring in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the despondent man is methodically preparing to commit suicide. The film follows him through what he plans as his final day—teaching one last literature class (the subject is H.G. Welles), closing out his bank account, and picking up some liquor for an evening dinner with his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore), an unhappy divorcee and fellow Brit with whom he once slept. Firth paints a remarkably rich, detailed portrait of a man struggling to keep his composure while in the depths of depression, desperate for companionship while necessarily keeping his desires in check. As the script makes clear, especially in his classroom discussion of fearful attitudes toward minorities, George is living at a time when homosexuals had to keep the closet door firmly closed.
But George’s ability to remain in control is constantly threatened by sights and sounds that recall his life with Jim and the pain he suffered when he not only received news of his death, but had to deal with being excluded from the funeral of the man he’d lived with for sixteen years. (“Only for family,” the sympathetic, disembodied voice informs him over the phone as George tries not to break down.) And it’s not as though George isn’t presented with opportunities. Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a handsome Spanish immigrant loitering outside the liquor store, effectively propositions him, and a gorgeous student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), whom Ford has outfitted in clothes chosen to make him look angelic and shot so lustrously that the boy seems to carry an aura about with him, not only engages the teacher in campus conversation but shows up at George’s favorite neighborhood bar with not just sympathy but the suggestion that they go for a late-night swim in the ocean.
The dramatic linchpin, of course, is the question whether George will follow through on his plan to kill himself at the end of the day, or whether he’ll finally be able to come to terms with Jim’s death. But the cinematic question is rather different: will the visual ostentation of Ford’s approach—the alternately metallic and creamy images, the obsessive concern with perfect compositions—overwhelm the emotional core of the story (or, more properly, the situation)? Sometimes it certainly seems poised to do so: the conversation that George and Carlos have in the store’s parking lot, for example, is set against an almost surrealistic horizon that’s a pretty big distraction, and a montage early on of the sweaty torsos of tennis players that George can’t help studying during a walk with a colleague is a heavy-handed lapse.
For the most part, however, the style actually enhances the narrative rather than undermining it. It situates George within a vaguely otherworldly environment that at once captures his sense of isolation while distancing us from the rigid, confining atmosphere of fifty years ago that’s still sadly recognizable in our supposedly liberated modern age.
And Ford coaxes performances that contribute to his carefully-calibrated vision not merely from Firth, but from the supporting cast. Moore makes the most of her few scenes as George’s not-entirely-platonic friend, and Hoult, Goode and Kortajarena aren’t called on to emote so much as to embody the physical presence of the Adonis figure that dominates George’s consciousness. Each of them is almost impossibly handsome, and each strikes the poses that suit the protagonist’s dreams. Lesser characters are aptly filled, including the voice that tells George of Jim’s death by long-distance—which happens to be provided by Jon Hamm of “Mad Men,” a touch that almost subconsciously takes us to the sixties milieu of the film.
The result is a picture in which the style constantly threatens to overwhelm the substance, but winds up contributing to it instead. “A Single Man” is a surprisingly moving portrait of the pain of loneliness in an era that imposed it on so many it identified as outsiders.