Christopher Isherwood’s slim novel is an emotionally engaging, powerful, and heartbreaking examination of a man consumed by grief and loss trying desperately to find a tether to the rest of the world. Tom Ford’s directorial debut follows it, at times to the letter and at others with necessary embellishments, and visualizes it in a way that is vibrant and engrossing in its excesses. A Single Man is a knockout by any measure.
Much like the novel, we are placed firmly within George’s perspective, a gay English expatriate professor at a local college who is contemplating suicide after the death of his lover of sixteen years. He has no family to speak of, was blocked from attending his lover’s funeral, and his lone friend is fellow Brit Charley, who drinks too much, smokes just as much, and harbors deep resentment and sexual desire towards him. George is adrift and trying to find a connection, and he eventually finds it in the form of Kenny, a seductive twink that clearly has a thing for daddy types.
We follow George through a single day from the time he wakes up through the night he spends with Kenny. Throughout, he encounters many people and we glimpse fleeting moments of connection and engagement with life and the living. Will this be enough to prevent him from going through with his plan? This is a broken man looking for any reason to stay, and you root for him to find it, to heal from his tragedy. You understand where, why, and how he’s come to this low point in his life.
It isn’t just the script, which is as strong as the novel, that hammers this point home, but the acting from the quartet of leading performers. Colin Firth’s frequently naked performance, and not just in the sense of his surprisingly toned body, is a marvel of miniscule acting producing wonders. He must move through life with a carefully constructed exterior in order to keep speculation away from his homosexuality, but Firth reveals the screaming terror and panic going on beneath the surface in the ways he struggles to swallow or nervously smiles. The scene where he learns of his lover’s death on the phone is a moment of sustained acting for the camera that should be studied. He keeps his voice at an even clip, but there’s real pain and slow dawning realizations in his eyes and facial tics. If Jeff Bridges wasn’t “due” an Oscar for his role in Crazy Heart, it wouldn’t be hard to see Firth having walked away with this one.
His three main supporting players are Matthew Goode, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult. Moore has a limited amount of screen time, basically appearing briefly in two phone conversations and one extended scene late in the film, and she must co-create an entire relationship with Firth that has decades of history attached to it. They manage it, and their booze-fueled emotional lacerations come with an emotional shorthand that only longtime friends can have. Moore can sometimes go too broad, but she finds a nice balance here with her nervous, manic movements and emotional desperation that can swiftly turn into neediness or affected boredom. Goode is every bit as effective, and with comparably less time. He’s warm and open, playful and encouraging of George. It’s easy to believe that they would connect with each other in a profound way given how they contrast and balance each other out. And Nicholas Hoult exists as a dreamy confection of lithe sexual desire. He’s aggressive and seductive towards George, baring more than a bit of personality resemblances of Goode’s character, manifesting as a rebellious, often naked lust object. He’s good but the part doesn’t ask much of him beyond being the recipient of a gay male gaze.
Swirling around them is Ford’s visual embellishments and heavily stylized direction. Some have complained that it threatens to overpower the film, and I disagree vehemently. Film is inherently a visual medium, and we’re complaining about a film’s powerful and seductive visual ornateness? Strange complaint that. I find that the use of desaturated colors only to vibrantly, violently turn them back up underscores moments where George is reengaging with the world, where he feels a connection in some way to those around him. It’s not coincidental that all of the flashbacks between Firth and Goode are warmly lit and colorful, or that Kenny’s blue eyes are blinding in their scenes together. These flourishes act as underscores for the thematic material at play here.
A Single Man left me excited for where Tom Ford’s directing career would continue. It’s a gorgeously rendered and emotional hefty film about loss, grief, and struggling to find your emotional foothold again. I find the entire thing to be exquisite and gripping. There’s hope to be found in the darkness here, even if the ending leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth.