Male figures move languorously in milky blue water. Are they marble statues? Unborn angels? Ah, they’re live men, but what is happening? Is this a baptism? A wet dream? Is someone drowning? A man bursts through to the surface of the water and gasps for breath. George Falconer (Colin Firth) wakes suddenly, then realizes, sadly, that he is, alas, back in real life.
So starts A Single Man, the stunning debut of fashion mogul turned filmmaker, Tom Ford. Director/co-writer Ford called upon his many artistic talents as well as his own life experience to create this free adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s finest novel. It spirals seamlessly from the present to the past, saturated with color sometimes, other times hazy with faded monochrome. In its slow, elegant, precise and surprising unfurling, the film transcends gender to touch everyone who’s ever been in love. Romantic, yet brutally honest, it emerges as a paen to the small, tender moments of true intimacy.
Los Angeles, 1962. The palm-tree town is obsessed with the Cuban missile crisis. English ex-pat George Falconer (Colin Firth) is an outsider here — an older bachelor in a neighborhood of bratty children, an elegantly dressed professor in a sea of corduroy jackets with suede elbow patches. As a homosexual, he’s always reminded he is a member of what he calls the “invisible minority.” For 16 years George has lived in quiet companionship with Jim (Matthew Goode), a much younger man. They met one night when Jim was on liberty celebrating the end of WWII and have been together ever since.
George is waiting eagerly for Jim to return from Colorado. The phone rings and the voice of a stranger tells him that Jim has been killed in an auto accident on an icy mountain road. The funeral will be for “family only,” so George is not invited. As he hears the dreadful news, the camera lingers on Colin Firth’s face, ever the reserved gentleman, holding in his emotions as his heart is being ripped out. It’s the performance of a lifetime.
Eight months later, George is still numb. His grief knows no end because he can’t talk about it with anyone. Every waking moment is agony because he’d rather be sleeping so he can dream of Jim. When he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see a face, he sees “an expression of a predicament.” George decides to join Jim in death and intends this day to be his last.
n class, almost daring to reveal his homosexuality to the students, George abandons his assigned discussion of Aldous Huxley and talks about how “fear is taking over our world.” He lists our fears, from communism to “Elvis Presley’s hips” to the “fear of growing old and being alone.” Only one of the students, a sensitive boy named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), seems to care about George’s soul-baring.
George spends the rest of the day dealing with the usual odd encounters one has in L.A. and doing the mundane, sometimes comical, tasks required to put a bullet in his head without making a mess. But in a good story, we know, the best laid plans of men always get messed up.
At night George goes to see his neighbor, an old girl friend from London. Charley is an over-boozed divorcee topped with a brilliant bouffant, played with nuanced gusto by Julianne Moore — her best part in years. In a classic scene of frustrated seduction, Charley tries her darndest to get George to bed her again. No luck. Charley is furious and George is left admitting, yet again, that no one can understand how special Jim and he were to one another.
On the way home, George makes a detour to a local bar and runs into the student Kenny. On a dare, they go skinny dipping in the cold, dangerous waves of the Pacific. With the gift of clarity, George sees the possibility of new love. Oh, we hope so. And then things get messed up again…