Colin Firth has crafted a career out of amusing performances as buttoned-down gentlemen in frothy comedies or period dramas. To many he is simply Mr. Darcy from the BBC's Pride And Prejudice and the Bridget Jones movies. Yet, in 2008, he played a grieving husband starting a new life with his two daughters in Michael Winterbottom's Genova. Firth excelled, and now looking back it seems as though he was going through a career transition. A year later, he's the protagonist of fashion designer Tom Ford's achingly good debut, A Single Man.
George Falconer is an English professor living in 1962 Los Angeles. His partner Jim dies in a car crash and although the two had lived together for sixteen years, the decorum of the time dictated that the relationship be kept secret. A Single Man follows him through one day, a day much like the many others he has struggled through, except that he has decided to end it by committing suicide. We watch as George gets dressed, goes to work, gives a lecture and arranges his death. Little happens, but each moment is perfectly composed, so breathtaking that there's no time to exhale.
Tom Ford presents clean images that are as stylized as a fashion spread in a coffee table book. There's no slack and every scene gets pulled taught. And yet rather than being lifeless or shallow, this perfection stretches the emotion to a breaking point, keeping our hearts in our mouths and our eyes riveted to the screen. Julianne Moore as George's best friend and former lover, Charley, chips away at George's stiff and well-starched veneer. As George's student, Kenny, Nicolas Hoult gives a mature performance beyond his years.
The film moves from black and white to a grainy brightness as George considers his life with Jim against the events of his day alone. The changes are made searing by Tom Ford's thoughtfulness - at one time the monochrome of George in his Saville Row suit is infiltrated by a bright-yellow pencil sharpener bought for him by Kenny.
George will walk along a perfectly period street, each sign, each costume an exact 1962 match - the smoothness, the orderliness is momentarily soothing - and then he stops at a car window to greet a fox terrier, the same type of dog that he owned with Jim, but which died alongside his partner, and he leans down to take the terrier's head and breathe in its fur tenderly, hopefully. The whole scene shakes with the vibrations of George's carefully restrained emotion.
For all the artificiality of the sets - each pen placed on the table just so - the performances staged on these sets are disarmingly natural. Firth and Hoult make sexuality a secondary issue to the human experience of love and loss. We will George to let Kenny break his pattern and prevent his suicide - we will them to kiss, to touch. The tension is at times excruciating.
The tone and style of A Single Man is nearly incomparable - although it might be possible to refer to director Todd Haynes, or the AMC series Mad Men, but not quite - this film has to be seen. I can only will you to go tonight, before this masterpiece is taken off the screen and replaced with some rot or other, as it will be if audience numbers continue to be as low as the night I went. If it's still here this weekend, I will be watching again. Yes, film reviewing is full of hyperbole, but this time it's true.
A Single Man HHHHH
Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicolas Hoult. Directed by Tom Ford. Rated R.