Tom Ford’s A Single Man is many things — including one of the most assured directorial debuts in memory. I’m bringing that up at the very onset because I’ve passed the saturation point with reviews that focus on Ford’s status as a fashion designer with an eye toward finding his direction “fussy” or any number of other code words that just skirt the same kind of prejudice that’s at the core of the quiet tragedy of the film. I suspect this is unconscious in most cases, but it gets a little close to resembling the neighbor in the film who has told his daughter that he’d like to kill George (Colin Firth) for no reason other than he thinks George is “light in the loafers.” In their own way, these reviews may serve the function of illustrating that A Single Man is considerably more relevant now than its 1962 period setting might suggest.
The film is based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, and it follows one day in the life of college professor George Falconer — the day on which he has decided to commit suicide. The reason behind Falconer’s decision is that he cannot bear the pain arising from the death of his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), which happened eight months earlier. That at least is the surface reason, but there’s a good deal more going on beneath that surface — just as there’s a good deal more going on beneath the visual panache of Ford’s direction.
Ford’s film is put together to build the case that it’s not just Jim’s death that plagues George, but rather the extreme sense of being alone that goes with such a death in a closeted world. It’s done slowly, meticulously and persuasively, with flashbacks illustrating much of this. The most harrowing is the surreptitious phone call from a relative of Jim informing George of his lover’s death — a call made without the knowledge or approval of Jim’s parents and one in which it’s made clear George is not wanted at the funeral. Even though George knows the score — he’s been playing the game all his life — and can keep his feelings in check over the phone, the devastation of both the loss and the fact that he has been written out of Jim’s life is palpable.
Bad as it is, the phone call may not be the worst of it. There’s the simple fact of being denied the right to grieve — and what turns out to be the surprising lack of understanding and sympathy from the one person, Charley (Julianne Moore), George can talk to, who dismisses his 16 years with Jim as something other than “a real relationship.”
George’s attempts to get through the day and carry out his plans are almost as bad. He even makes a vague stab at coming out to his class at the university, but, of course, stops himself. An encounter with a sympathetic hustler (Spanish TV actor Jon Kortjarena) offers a bittersweet reminder of connecting with other people, but more important are the attentions of a nervous student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, The Weather Man), who, like the hustler, thinks George needs a friend. The question is, what kind of friend? Refreshingly, that’s a question that never loses a degree of ambiguity.
It would be a disservice to the film to reveal anything more than I already have. Let it speak for itself, which it’s quite capable of doing. Like a few other critics, I have some reservations about the ending, though I will say that it isn’t a twist and has been built into the proceedings. Overall, though, this is real filmmaking (Ford’s use of color and formal composition techniques is a good deal more than “surface” trimming) with the acting to back it up. It might be argued that George is the role that Colin Firth was born to play, and it might equally be argued that his internalized intensity here will add to one’s appreciation of his other, often underrated, performances. Rate R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content.