A Single Man is the story of a man dying -- literally and figuratively -- of a broken heart. A shattered heart, more like, and he carries the pain of it around with him as if the shards pressed constantly against his insides.
The man is George (Colin Firth), an Englishman, and an English professor at a Los Angeles college. The year is 1962 -- the radio buzzes with paranoia-fueling news of the Cuban missile crisis. George's longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode) has been dead for several months, but grief still looms over every part of George's daily existence. Perhaps because he cannot publicly acknowledge his grief, or his love, it is all the more painful and intractable. A Single Man follows George on one long and fateful day, from his morning routine, to teaching a class, to an odd encounter with a flirty student (Nicholas Hoult), and dinner with his friend Charly (Julianne Moore), another miserable British ex-pat. At some point, George buys bullets. He plans for this day to be his last.
A Single Man is based on Christopher Isherwood's groundbreaking 1964 novel of the same name. It is directed by Tom Ford, the fashion designer, who shows a sure hand here in his first film. Ford co-wrote the screenplay with David Scearce, and it is a meticulously detailed and frequently moving study of grief, of being closeted, of maintaining a facade. A Single Man moves at a stately and considered pace, the camera drinking in the details and routines that are George's visible, surface life. Firth's performance is equally detailed, and nuanced, and stares with heartbreaking clarity into the abyss of George's aching emptiness.
Not surprisingly, Ford is interested in what his characters are wearing -- there is obvious attention to clothing and hair, as George lays out the suit he apparently intends to be buried in, complete with instructions. Appearances are meant, too, to tell us about the people we see -- are they hipsters or squares, are they friend or foe? Likewise, the set design is beautiful and quite interesting, but none of this serves as an undue distraction. It easily could have, since A Single Man is not heavy on plot -- there really is no plot -- it simply recounts from start to finish a long, strange, and interesting day. The images are sometimes a bit static, and they can looked a tad overly staged -- a bit like a classy high fashion ad. Ford uses an expressive cinematic flourish to reveal what George conceals within: the color palette is muted shades of grey and brown, the dull, dreary world as George experiences it. But when George is interested in something, or someone, his outlook brightens, if only for a while, and he and the world bloom with vivid color.
Firth's performance is weighty enough to keep the whole film securely anchored in reality, and there's no danger of it drifting away on flights of fanciness. The key to George, to the story, is the radical notion (which is, sadly, apparently still radical) that he, a gay man, is also an utterly ordinary man -- a single man like any other, with a life like any other. It is only the world that makes him unusual, so that he needs to recede into himself, to turn inward, where he finds only love and loss.