If there’s one subject that’s hard to sell on screen, it’s mourning. While the untimely loss of a loved one makes for tearjerking film drama, its aftermath is less eventful. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge pointed out, violent despair is easier to endure than monotonous sadness: “a grief without a pang, void, dark and drear.” Easier to watch, too.
For his first film, menswear maven and former Gucci creative director Tom Ford has chosen to adapt a 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel that chronicles one day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a middle-aged college professor whose lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), died eight months before. George’s opening voiceover makes clear that he’s still among the walking wounded. Actually, “living dead” might be a better term: Beneath his spiffy suits and perfectly shined shoes, George is a bit of a zombie. And he has plans to remove the “living” qualifier this very night, with a revolver.
How does Ford make this no-exit scenario watchable? By focusing on beauty wherever he can find it. Imagine a Vogue fashion spread set in the “Mad Men” era and crossed with the gay-themed Sirkian drama that Todd Haynes was attempting in Far From Heaven. Then sprinkle on a dash of Wong Kar-Wai’s swoony, music-driven style, add some British restraint (courtesy of Firth’s classy but intense performance), and you have A Single Man. Oh, and don’t forget Julianne Moore’s too-brief, award-nominated Liz Taylor turn as George’s boozy divorcée friend, who hasn’t given up on persuading him to play for her team.
In short, the movie offers a lot of eye candy. Eyes, too — F. Scott Fitzgerald and his famous “eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleberg” have nothing on Ford. Wherever George goes, Ford’s camera zeroes in on beautiful eyes — the kohl-rimmed peepers of a departmental secretary; the soulful blue irises of a pothead student (Nicholas Hoult) who has an obvious crush on the professor. In one ravishing scene, George converses with a model-handsome young Spaniard beneath the spectral eyes of a gigantic poster of Janet Leigh in Psycho. Behind them is a carmine sunset haze so perfect it just has to be digitally generated — but that’s OK. The script is strong enough to make the lavish visuals seem like an illustration and not a compensation.
Watching A Single Man is like gazing into a museum of the Camelot years lit to evoke yellowed film prints from the period. It’s also a museum of pre-Stonewall attitudes. One particularly wrenching scene is the flashback in which George gets the bad news and learns that, because Jim’s parents never accepted the relationship, he won’t be welcome at the memorial. He can’t even request custody of the couple’s dog.
George receives these blows with impeccable politeness; not for him the messy emotions of his students. He breaks down only when he’s with his old friend Charley (Moore) — and, as they slowly get pickled over dinner, it becomes clear that the movie isn’t just about dealing with others’ deaths but about confronting our own. When George chides Charley for not looking to the future, she ripostes, “Living in the past is my future.”
Is it ever too late to start over, to learn to love again, etcetera? Going against venerable Hollywood tradition, A Single Man dares suggest that, yes, sometimes we’re done. Still, like its central character, the film has a dry wit and grace that are, for lack of a better word, life affirming.