Colin Firth is marvelous navigating grief in ‘A Single Man’
The scary-beautiful image that begins A Single Man, a naked male figure floating embryo-like (or possibly drowning) under water, plunges the viewer into a sense of edgy dislocation. All the better to appreciate the mindset of the film’s protagonist, a quietly closeted gay expatriate Briton in sunny L.A., grieving over the loss of his longtime partner, who no longer fits into his own well-tailored life. From these opening moments, we share the protagonist’s unease about the randomness of the universe in Tom Ford’s spare, elegant study on the nature of grief.
A veteran fashion photographer making his feature film debut, Ford has an eye for such poetic visual details. Adapted from the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood (Ford wrote the script with David Scearce), the story charts the disruptive course of renegade feelings in a life that’s been built on keeping feelings in check. In Ford’s capable hands, the film explores every shading of danger and catharsis inherent in this premise, all of them contained in the marvelously controlled, yet expressive performance of Colin Firth.
Onscreen in every scene, Firth plays George, a British-born professor of English at an L.A. city college, ca. 1962. Eight months after the death of his life partner, it’s still a challenge for George to get a grip. Everywhere he looks in the impeccable, secluded home they shared for 16 years on a suburban street in the Santa Monica foothills, George sees traces of the younger, more confident American, Jim (Matthew Goode, excellent, as always, in flashback), whose robust vitality haunts George’s now diminished life. Every morning since losing Jim, George notes, “waking up has actually hurt.” Dressing for work, he sees “not a face in the mirror, but the expression of a predicament,” urging himself to “Just get through the goddam day.”
It’s this day like no other in George’s life that forms the plot. Ready to come to some reckoning with his grief, he makes a point to compliment people he values (his housekeeper; his secretary), and diverges from an Aldous Huxley text to warn his bored class about the fear of the masses for “minorities” (especially those who “blend in”)—striking a chord with provocative student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). George cleans out his safety deposit box, and keeps a dinner date with his pal, “Charley” (a fine turn by Julianne Moore), another transplanted Londoner, George’s onetime lover (literally, one time) and lifelong best friend.
Through it all, George maintains a demeanor of wry, clipped composure, befitting one who’s spent a lifetime blending in. What this has cost him is portrayed most powerfully in the still-raw memory of the moment he heard the news about Jim, in a phone call from a cousin on the other side of the country (George certainly wasn’t the first person notified), who also tells him the service will be “just for family.” The way Firth’s George receives this call with polished, thoughtful courtesy, as his world crashes around him, is
Ford surrounds Firth’s gemlike performance with exceptional visual pizzazz. The bleached-out sepia of the present-day scenes provide contrast to George’s vibrant memories of Jim (along with one improbable, but gorgeous, flashback in black and white). The look of the early ’60s is cannily evoked: coeds in black and ratted-up beehives, bank tellers in headbands, George’s supply of white shirts and charcoal-grey suits (although Moore’s tossed tresses and pop-art gown belong to a slightly later era). Most telling is the way Ford conveys so much of the story in extreme close-up, as George scrutinizes every face, every eye, for clues to the inner lives hidden behind.
There are some minor continuity problems, notably that neither George nor Jim ever seems to age over 16 years’ worth of memories. (Or maybe that’s just the way George remembers them.) But as arty as it often looks, the natural ease of Firth and Goode together give the film focus and heart. And for all the apprehension drummed up in the course of George’s day, the unpredictable finale is ironic, bittersweet, and strangely fitting.
A SINGLE MAN ★★★
With Colin Firth, Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult. Written by Tom Ford and David Scearce. Directed by Tom Ford. From the novel by Christopher Isherwood.
A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R. 101 minutes. Watch movie trailer >>>