A Single Man
A long day’s journey into longing, grieving
There are three professionals and one amateur at work in “A Single Man,’’ but only one of the four really matters. The first professional is the late Christopher Isherwood, upon whose novel the movie is based. Isherwood, a writer whose short stories gave birth to the musical “Cabaret,’’ was an openly gay artist in a deeply closeted age, and “A Single Man,’’ which takes place in a single day, is about the pain of the closet. In it, a college professor named George, an Englishman living in California, mourns the death of his lover in a car accident. Simply put, it’s about the grief that dare not speak its name.
The second professional, and the reason to see the movie, is Colin Firth, who has been our stalwart Hollywood Brit for so long - working hard to class up movies like “Mamma Mia!’’ and “What a Girl Wants’’ - that some of us have forgotten he can act. “A Single Man’’ corrects that situation not with rending of hair and big emotional scenes but with an eerie, muted, suicidal calm. Firth plays a drowning man who can’t yell for help, and it’s an awful thing to see.
The lover, seen in flashbacks across the course of the couple’s long relationship, is played by Matthew Goode (“Watchmen’’) as a rather convenient angel; either George only treasures the good memories, or there were no bad ones. Or maybe it’s director Tom Ford who’s idealizing their lost love in a variety of soft-focus tableaux. He’s this film’s amateur, a legendary fashion designer and former creative director of
Is Ford a natural filmmaker? Tough to say. He’s a natural something. “A Single Man’’ compresses dozens of shades of poignancy and longing into that one day, partly by relying on the small cast and mostly through a dizzying array of film stocks, tinting schemes, and cinematographic tricks (the director of photography is Eduard Grau). We don’t need to see the color leach out of George’s face, though, to understand this man is bleeding to death. Ford approaches moviemaking as a photo shoot unstuck in time, and that gives “A Single Man’’ a luxuriant sadness while keeping the audience at arm’s length. If he can relax in time for his next movie, maybe then we’ll see what he’s made of.
In George’s long day’s journey into the suburban night, he has a few encounters. A chance meeting with a young Spanish vagabond (Jon Kortajarena) becomes a pick-up of sorts; if George is too weary to entertain lust, he’s glad it still exists in others. An is-he-or-isn’t-he flirtation with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of his students, is of more serious consequence in ways I won’t spoil; I will say that Kenny’s puppy-dog posturing - the kid thinks he’s dangerous - is pretty adorable.
Then there’s Julianne Moore as Charley, George’s longtime friend, drinking companion, every-so-often lover. Moore’s the third professional in “A Single Man,’’ and to be honest, that professionalism - the actress’s earnest sense of duty - is starting to grate on me. She’s one of our most fearless performers but I can’t remember the last time Moore actually seemed to enjoy herself. Each role is a new kind of punishment, and Charley, not so discreetly wishing George were straight, damn it, is his punishment and ours. This is a fine performance but you’re grateful for the quiet when Charley leaves.
Firth is able to use that quiet. He shuts down George’s face so that it appears to be on life support - the barest flicker of a smile becomes seismic. The actor knows how to play a reticent man swimming back to the surface of himself, certainly more than Ford does (he swamps the movie with pretty but shallow underwater imagery) but perhaps as much as Isherwood.
The ending of “A Single Man’’ is a shock and, in the telling, a grossly unfair one. It’s the same as in the book, but movies flow at their own pace, and Ford hasn’t judged the difference - how to surprise audiences instead of betraying them. There’s a lot, in fact, that keeps this film from greatness. One performance alone recommends it. That’s enough.