Not to sound like a boor or anything, but movies about grief are usually a drag to sit through (hey, I’ve got my own problems, all right? I don’t need to pay to see more.) But A Single Man, the directorial debut of fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford, takes a different approach to the cinematic representation of mourning.
Adapted by Ford and screenwriter David Scearce from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, the film is set during a single day in 1962 Los Angeles, where a 52-year-old closeted English college professor, George (Colin Firth), is still reeling from the recent death of his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. We only see Jim in brief flashbacks — the night he and George met at a party, the couple hanging out at home, Jim’s bloodied corpse at the accident site — but we come to feel his absence and the pain of his loss through Firth’s exceptional performance, which is a marvel of communicating expansive emotion and thought through minimal action.
George goes about his day as if it were any other, exchanging greetings with the neighbors next door, leading his students on a lecture about Aldous Huxley, discussing the ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis with a colleague and preparing for a disastrous dinner at the home of his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore). George and Charley once had a brief affair, and now Charley, divorced and alcoholic, hopes to somehow stoke up old, dead flames.
None of this would amount to much of a movie, except that George has secretly decided to commit suicide, which adds a layer of gravity and poignancy to the act of watching him go through the motions of his life. Befitting his fashion background, Ford occasionally succumbs to the unnecessary flourish of style that distracts us from the drama, although most of the time uses exemplary subtlety and restraint. During a flashback in which George receives a phone call coldly informing him of Jim’s death, the camera remains trained solely on Firth’s face (bonus points for Mad Men fans who can place the voice on the other end).
Despite its downbeat theme, A Single Man is ultimately optimistic about the human capability to gradually make peace with seemingly insurmountable pain and tragedy. We may never be the same, the film argues, but as long as the world around us continues to spin, there is always hope.
A Single Man is small and slight, but the movie ends on a lovely note of grace — an indication that even for George, whose grief and loneliness today feels paralyzing and all-consuming, there’s always a reason to go on.
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena, Paulette Lamori, Ryan Simpkins, Ginnifer Goodwin.
Director: Tom Ford.
Screenwriters: Tom Ford, David Scearce. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood.
Producers: Tom Ford, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 99 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.