Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, "A Single Man" is an intimate drama with a rattling emotional core. A film about loss, despair, redemption, and the little moments in life that make all the heartache worth enduring, it has been sumptuously helmed by fashion-designer-turned-first-time-director Tom Ford (he also collaborated on the screenplay with David Scearce). The time period may be the 1960sand the main character might be homosexualbut the story being told and the grief that George Falconer (Colin Firth) is faced with when his beloved partner of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode), is suddenly killed in a car accident, are universal to the human condition. This innate relatability, enriched by stunning cinematography from newcomer Eduard Grau and top-flight performances from Colin Firth (2008's "Mamma Mia!
") and Julianne Moore (2008's "Blindness
"), carry the tale effortlessly toward a conclusion that isn't quite up to par with all that has come before it. Still, the journey in getting to that point is well worth it.
It has been eight months since George Falconer lost his soul mate and was subsequently not invited to his funeral. Filled with a sense of hopelessness, each day bleeding into the next like a haze of nothingness, he has vowed to change all that on November 30, 1962. As George, an English professor at Stanford University, goes about his day like it were any other, subtle but sure hints suggest that things are not right. As he packs up his belongings before leaving worksomething not lost upon curious, worried pupil Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who tries to reach out to himand then pays a visit to his safe deposit box at the bank, it doesn't take long to figure out George has no intention of seeing another sunrise. What George doesn't anticipate are the turns that said day will take, from his chance encounter with a smoldering, Spanish James Dean lookalike (Jon Kortajarena), to his evening spent with lonely glamourpuss best friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore), to a later run-in with Kenny that becomes more meaningful than either party anticipates.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, "A Single Man" is empathetic and mournful, deliberate and urgent. While political strife wages in the background and Janet Leigh's alarmed eyes from a giant "Psycho" billboard gaze across a Hollywood car park, George is left bottled up in a turmoil he can only think of one way to express. If the picture's seeming foreboding creep toward his ultimate suicide sounds especially dour, consider, then, the film's message that it is never too late to turn things arounduntil it is. Time and time again, George experiences signs that could be read as coincidence or messages from a higher power; either way, they serve to show him the beauty in the world and the small but potent gestures of kindness and selflessness that are possible around every corner. Is that enough, though, when the one person you most want to spend the rest of your life with is gone?
George and the late Jim are seen together in economical flashbacks that, if not fully painting the details of the life they shared together, properly exhibit the connection and love between them. They add weight to George's present circumstances, though not as much as the early scene where he receives a phone call alerting him of Jim's death. As if the knowledge that the funeral is going to be "family only" isn't harsh enough, George's reaction to the news after putting the phone back on the receiver is unfathomably heartbreaking. As perfectly performed by Colin Firth, the way he plays this critical moment is, at once, complex and raw, avoiding over-the-top histrionics but nonetheless delivering a powerhouse of overwhelming grievous emotions. Has there ever been a more accurate onscreen portrayal of a person learning that a loved one has died? Regardless, the dramatic force of this scene is more than enough to carry George and the left-enraptured viewer through the rest of the film.
As a character study, Colin Firth is at the forefront of nearly every second. It's a revelatory turn, piercing and vulnerable, forcing him to go deeper than memory serves he ever has before. If the testament of a great screen actor if how much an audience is able to read on his or her face before they have even opened their mouth to speak, then Firth's work is some of the best of the year. As Charlotte, a boozy, aging Brit who moved to Los Angeles years ago and still yearns to find the kind of love George and Jim shared, Julianne Moore is sensational. Putting on a cheery face even as she masks her own pain, Charlotte is like a wounded bird who has just returned from a day of primping at the local spa. With significantly less screen time than Firth, Moore does wonders with the part, making her character almost every bit as vital and fleshed out. Also standing out, Nicholas Hoult (2005's "The Weather Man
") is striking as Kenny, his physical beauty an intentional hindrance to the thoughtful mind at work behind his blue eyes. What does Kenny want from George? Is he merely concerned for him, or is he searching for someone who will be able to understand his sexual confusion? Might he even want a relationship? Kenny's motives, while left open to interpretation, aren't the point; what matters is that he cares enough about George's welfare, for whatever reason, to potentially save him from himself.
For a motion picture that scarcely ever steps wrong, the final moments of "A Single Man" are its sole major downfall. The decisions that George makes, followed by a cruel twist of fate too blatantly telegraphed in advance, is at direct odds with the movie's hopeful undercurrent. Worse yet, the climactic turn of events is nothing but a movie-style contrivance, an unnecessary zinger that should have been left on the cutting room floor. If the ending is a letdown, however, it does not prove ruinous to the rest of the film, meticulous in detail, aesthetics and existential wonderments. By and large, "A Single Man" stays valiantly true to itself, and to George, a protagonist whose possibly final day is, indeed, anything but ordinary.