Oscar-nominated lead just one of many distinguished features of A Single Man
George (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged college professor and English expatriate in Southern California in the early 1960s. And he’s a single man in several senses of the word: he’s unmarried, he’s recently lost his long-time lover, Jim (Mathew Goode), to an auto crash, and he feels alone and lost in a more metaphysical—and final—way.
Firth’s Oscar-nominated performance in the title role is being broadcast as the film’s chief selling point, and that may be this production’s likeliest means of attracting a large audience. But A Single Man, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s groundbreaking gay-themed novella of 1964, distinguishes itself on several counts. Firth is excellent as always, and yet this is not a one-man show.
First-time director Tom Ford, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with David Scearce, stays true to the basic letter of Isherwood’s story, but somewhat softens the overall tone, perhaps out of commercial necessity as well as respect and affection.
An early reviewer of the novel declared that “the fine thing about George as a subject for fiction is that he is displayed with compassion but no mercy.” The Ford/Scearce/Firth version of George is a remarkable mixture of admiration and irony, but it is rarely merciless.
The genteel amiability of Ford’s approach serves the film reasonably well for the most part. But that Isherwoodian mercilessness insinuates its way back into the picture through some of the most ineradicable elements of the original story—in the aftermath of his lover’s death, George is intent on committing suicide; death looms throughout the story, from start to finish.
The film is especially sharp on George’s identity crisis and on the dynamics of gay relationships in the delicately repressive circumstances of the period. But there is also an almost mystical side to the story that emerges via its confrontations with the fact of death. Ford and company are less successful with these aspects, which never really take on any genuine conviction until the strange and somewhat baffling final moments of the film, wherein they are at least partly salvaged via the gentle and somewhat meditative mood in which they are presented.
And maybe what matters most here is that there is a good deal of serious appeal in the characters George encounters during what might be the last day of his life—his long-time lady friend Charlotte (a superb Julianne Moore), his deceased lover, Jim (still indelibly present in flashbacks and dream sequences), a young hustler (Jon Kortajarena) with whom he has a brief and erratic flirtation, and an ambiguously attentive student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). The best scenes and sequences in the film are those that pair Moore with Firth, and Firth with Hoult, with the latter being especially well-conceived.
Ford made his name as a fashion designer, and his filmmaking debut often seems a flashy grab-bag of stylish stuff begged and borrowed from the artiest sorts of movie-making. He’s probably trying too hard here, but that hasn’t kept a lot of very good stuff from shining through all the same.