Colin Firth delivers a towering performance in Tom Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A SINGLE MAN. The novel’s interior monologue has been externalized as an haute-couture fashion shoot, familiar territory for the fashion designer turned filmmaker. Instead of a cheap gimmick or a cheesy idiom, though, it’s the perfect subjective palette on which to play out the emotional turmoil experienced by Professor George Falconer during what he plans on being the last day of his life. It is Firth’s subtle, understated performance that brings it together. In him, there is the juxtaposition of the British stiff upper lip cracking with the restraint of snarkiness, silliness, and sentiment; a quick sardonic wit and sad eyes that yearn for kindness that Falconer extends to those from whom, unnbeknownst to them, he is about to take his leave.
In a mix of Friday, November 20, 1962, and flashbacks of his idyllic 16-year life with lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), colors intensify and fade, the present and the past co-mingle inextricably. Fowler, moving between the present and the past, takes care of the last details of his life, laying out his burial suit with instructions on how to the tie should be knotted, fussing over the most comfortable way to place himself and the gun that will remove him from this world, having a final, revelatory dinner with Charlie (Julianne Moore), who has followed him from London to Los Angeles and has never quite gotten over their brief affair. Offered the world on a silver platter in the form of a comfortable life of teaching, and the two beautiful young men who throw themselves at him, Fowler is a prisoner of his past and his grief, a fact brought home in the unsettling kiss that opens the film, the one Fowler delicately places on Jim’s dead, frozen, and blood-smeared lips.
Firth lives a lifetime of emotion in the course of this one day, the ache of loneliness, the futziness of orderliness that both soothes and traps him, and the gentle sadness of an evening with Charlie, whose own loneliness of abandonment by husband and son, is as inconsolable at Fowler’s. Moore’s performance, skittering dangerously on the edge of caricature, has Charlie stumbling through life in a disheveled haze of gin, cigarettes, and boredom. She finds the woman’s heart, though, even as she reveals a selfishness that is as monstrous as it is oddly innocent. Innocent, too, but oddly wise, is Fowlers student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). He negotiates the tricky, dangerous courting of another man in the time before Stonewall with grace, intensity, and a relentlessness that is less stalking than romance of a most sentimental type. And a hopeless romantic is what Fowler is beneath the stuffy, tweedy exterior, with the object of his romance taken from him, and a world at large that refuses to recognize its legitimacy or his loss.
Ford focuses on details, the full screen suddenly filling with the swoop of a woman’s eyeliner. The overall effect is the disjointedly peculiar focus of a psyche that is overwrought and acutely, painfully aware of everything around its profound isolation. If the obvious symbolism of Fowler walking alone against a sea of people is a hackneyed device unworthy of the rest of the film, Ford overcomes it with a stream-of-consciousness style that is both stylish and heartfelt. As one character opines about the smog in Los Angeles causing such beautiful sunsets, sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty. Ford has found the beauty in despair without cheapening either.