Once in a while you come upon a movie whose look, tone, and feel, along with whose script, acting, and direction make you want to simply exhort, “Just go see this” (I’m serious. You can stop reading this right now). “A Single Man,” directed by Tom Ford, written by David Scearce, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is one such movie.
Ford’s gorgeously measured story recounts the events in a day after said single man George (Colin Firth) learned of the death of his lover of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode). Ford’s direction is stately and monumental, like JFK’s funeral cortege. Set in 1962, its clothes are straight out of AMC’s “Mad Men,” the cars, the university campus (including the smoking in class), the interior design is not retro, it’s contemporary, for that particular era. And the performances of Firth and Julianne Moore, as Charley, his fellow transplanted Brit, best friend, former lover, are stellar.
Firth gives George a stoic splendor. His whole demeanor looks as if Laurence Olivier is channeling Marcus Aurelius. He’s meticulous; especially in the way he arranged relevant documents (life insurance policies, letters explaining why he did what he was planning to do) on his desk and placed a sleeping bag (for reasons that will become apparent) on his bed out of respect for his maid. He strikes and holds a middle register: with the exception of the scene when he appears at Charley’s front door immediately after the phone call, his scenes of grief don’t show him lachrymose and devastated; neither do his flashbacks to happier days with Jim show him giddy with love. There’s a good reason he’s called an old man: he’s controlled and mature and probably was so as well when he was Jim’s age, who’s considerably younger.
Moore’s Charley, on the other hand, emits a feral grace. Her life is a wreck. She’s clearly husband-and-wife in love with George: she wants him but he can’t have her the way she wants, so she drinks gin and spends a lot of time preparing herself so she looks fabulous when George comes to visit. There’s an Adonis ethereality to Goode’s Jim, who is coy and playful; his energy is the perfect foil to Firth’s reserve. He has a lot in common with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of George’s students. With the same sort of casual charm and prototypical J. Crew good looks as Jim, he manages to penetrate George’s shell, to reverse the teacher/student relationship and inculcate some life – and a reason to live – into George, if only George, in a very staggeringly surprising finale, had the heart, literally, for it.
But it’s the attention to costume and accessory detail, be it George’s suits, Moore’s party dresses, the attire of the college students, the cigarette lighter, and the fountain pen, that so perfectly reflects George’s grief: classically (read: timelessly) stylish and simple, as befits a man you could just as easily imagine delivering a Cicero-esque funeral oration as pondering the answer to the eternal question, to be or not to be.