Grief is at the heart of this moving, beautifully made debut from Tom Ford
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Colin Firth (George Falconer), Julianne Moore (Charley Roberts), Nicholas Hoult (Kenny Potter), Matthew Goode (Jim), Jon Kortajarena (Carlos), Paulette Lamori (Alva), Ryan Simpkins (Jennifer Strunk), Ginnifer Goodwin (Mrs Strunk), Teddy Sears (Mr Strunk), Lee Pace (Grant Lefanu)
Grief is like a gaping wound that never heals. It’s an unbearable burden LA-based English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) can’t bear any longer. Distraught after the death of his partner of sixteen years Jim (Matthew Goode), George decides November 30th 1962 will be the last day of his life. He will spend the day putting his affairs in order, soaking up the isolated intensity of moments, have dinner at his oldest friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house, then take his life. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man follows that one day.
The universal pain of grief and vibrancy of love shines out of one of the most tender gay-love stories ever made (strikingly shot and acted by a straight director and leads). A Single Man is a film that aches in every frame with the desolation of loss and the agony of moments that can never be claimed, touches that can never be made and conversations that can never be had. It studies how empty and overbearing life can feel when we know we must face it alone, without the person who made the world make sense to us.
It is of course a double burden when that loss cannot be acknowledged. George learns of the death of Jim via an awkward phone call from Jim’s brother (a vocal cameo from Jon Hamm) who can’t bring himself to openly acknowledge the love between the two men and tells him it’s a “family only” funeral. George himself can only convey repressed English regret during the phone call, before collapsing into lurching emotional hysteria after it. His loneliness and cool distance from others is all a side effect of man who must always hide his true feelings and who and what he is.
The film gains a huge amount from Colin Firth’s extraordinary performance in the lead role, hiding a seething, raw pain under a genteel and refined exterior. This seemingly cold, precise man – who dresses like a fashion model and is polite to a fault – is a tempest below the surface of loss that cannot be expressed. It’s as much the burden of putting on one face to the world, knowing there is another below the surface, that has crushed George’s spirit over the past years, as the loss of Jim. All of this is captured by Firth with exquisite sensitivity, in a perfectly judged performance.
Even George’s closest confidante Charley – his best friend, and one-time experimental romantic fling, now a depressed divorcee – can’t quite understand George’s feelings for Jim. Played with a wonderful air of domestic, middle-aged tragedy by Julianne Moore, Charley still can’t quite believe a homosexual love can ever really be the “equal” of a heterosexual one – that some part of George would have been happier if he had accepted a ‘normal’ relationship and family with her rather than the more ‘exotic’ relationship he chose. If even those closest to George can’t really see his relationship as legitimate, what chance does his apple-pie neighbourhood have of doing so?
It’s the intense loneliness – no one to share his pain with, no way to really mourn his love – that has finally beaten the will to carry on for George. Ford’s direction reflects his sense of ennui by presenting the world as coldly drained out, rich colours replaced with greyscale-tinged greys and blues. Warm colours only intrude in those moments where George consciously decides to engage, one final time, with the wonders the world has to offer, the frame filling with warmth and colour.
Ford’s elegiac film doesn’t shy away from the coldness of pain and loss. Opening with a (literally) chilling scene, as George imagines encountering Jim’s dead body in the snows, it conveys the functional distance the world can seem to have when we are dealing with life changing internal feelings. George is entrapped into tired conversations about university politics (his gaze drifts to two male tennis players, the screen momentarily filling with colour). Reflecting his fastidious nature, he carefully puts his affairs in order at the bank and catalogues keys, account details and suicide notes on his desk. All of it feels irrelevant compared to the pain within.
But A Single Man is also a hopeful film. Even when the world seems at its bleakest – when we have decided we can’t go on – there is still hope. It’s represented here by Nicholas Hoult, warm, open and honest as George’s student Kenny who intuitively identifies something is wrong with George and goes to huge lengths to try and find out what. The tenderness between the two – and the protectiveness as well as genuine smiles Kenny can promote in George – is a beat that suggests there may still be some chance of happiness in this world where we least expect it.
It’s part of the same warmth and humanity that underlies Ford’s heartfelt film, wonderfully directed. If it was a parade of bleakness, it would have far less effect. But flashbacks to George and Jim together show the joy and comfort of their lives, while the small moments of warmth and humanity in the present constantly remind us of what George’s decision will cost him.
The film’s final dark splash of irony may well be a little too on the nose, sign posted as a possibility a little too heavily earlier in the film. But, in its exploration of grief and intelligent, intense character study it’s a wonderful debut from Ford. And Firth’s extraordinary, career defining role (a year later, after winning the Oscar for The King’s Speech he thanked Tom Ford as being someone who owed a piece of the award to) is one for the ages that speaks to anyone who has ever known loss.