If there is one thing I learned from A Single Man, it is, as the protagonist says, that nothing seems to go as planned. For starters, I hadn’t planned on being so captivated by this gem of a film, which is so exquisitely rendered in the most heart-wrenching way.
A Single Man, based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, follows George (Colin Firth), a British ex-pat who has just lost his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a tragic car accident. George spends his days as an English professor lecturing to apathetic students at a California university, and his nights wishing he didn’t. We meet him on a seemingly typical day, as he goes to work, withdraws money from the bank, talks to his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), and calmly puts the final touches on his plan to kill himself at the end of the day, right down to the gun in his desk drawer. The plot as a whole is very Mrs. Dalloway-esque, as it jumps back and forth between Firth’s golden memories of his past and his grey, empty present. He is a man continually stuck in the in-between, made worse by the film’s setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where everyone is straining against the needs of day-to-day life and the desperate desire to run around screaming in frustration.
Firth is at his very best – his grey, weary face, so exhausted in its grief, is spellbinding, as he wanders about his day in a perfectly pressed suit. It’s refreshing to see him in something where he doesn’t play an uptight, emotionally void, bumbling twit, dressed in some unfortunate period costume ranging from tights to Christmas jumpers? Moore is also devastating as Charley, a desperate middle-aged California housewife, in love with George in the most impossible way, and waiting for her life to begin.
Of all the films I have seen the past year, A Single Man, is by far the most achingly beautiful. Tom Ford, a former fashion designer-turned first time-director, does an excellent job in the aesthetic sense. Each frame seems to burst onto the screen, snapshots of the most perfect proportions. His attention to detail – the curve made by the sweep of inky black eyeliner, the wafting tendrils of smoke as it leaves one’s lips – gives the film a sense of an almost hyper-reality, as California life can so often be. It is this overwhelming sense of careful control that makes the underlying tension so palpable – the film is a never-ending series of beautiful images just waiting to give way into chaos. A Single Man slows a bit in the middle, but it is this sense of complacency that lulls the audience, making the surprise ending that much more of a surprise. Expect the unexpected in this truly heartbreaking work of staggering beauty.