“Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament,” George Falconer (Colin Firth) calmly notes, gazing at his reflection after he’s put on the crisp suit, hair and face he wears for the world outside his Los Angeles home. His manner and tone are disconcerting, for the predicament he’s in is not one simply solved. The sudden death of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode, radiating warmth in his few scenes), in a car accident has damaged George in ways that cannot be mended. Waking up is physically painful. Grief has taken him to a place that he cannot come back from and doesn’t want to.
George Falconer, with his unwrinkled shirts and mute anguish, would present a challenge to any actor. Colin Firth is not “any actor.” From the uptight Mark Darcy to the repressed Adrian LeDuc, Firth’s career has been defined by characters who operate under a “better in than out” philosophy: They believe emotions to be unnecessary inconveniences to others. George Falconer puts them all to shame; it is the role of a lifetime for Firth, a challenge that demands control and also sadness and even humor. Firth not only rises to the occasion but surpasses it, shaping George into a man whose life force drained out the moment he got the call his soulmate was dead. In Firth we see a man looking at the world, as singer/songwriter Mike Doughty wrote, from the bottom of a well. Life has become small, closed-in, while the world above is expansive and out of reach and also bright, so bright he wants to shut his eyes to it.
George does indeed, at the beginning of Tom Ford’s overly stylized adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, decide to shut out the world. Unable to grieve openly for Jim — this is the ’60s, not a time of free expression for gays, lesbians and transgendered people — he intends to kill himself. The day we meet him is to be the last day of his life. He’s purchased bullets for his gun, removed everything from his safe deposit box, picked out his suit, laid all his effects end to end on the kitchen table. In short, he has planned everything to the last detail (this leads to an unexpectedly funny sequence involving Firth testing a sleeping bag as an effective way to shoot himself without spattering the walls with blood). A few things happen that threaten to interrupt his plan: a drunken dalliance with former lover Charley (Julianne Moore, overwrought and underwhelming), a fellow Brit who marinates herself in gin to relive her younger days; a liquor store encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a chiseled Spaniard hustler; and several poignant moments with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of George’s sharper university students who senses his professor’s need for companionship.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that first-time director Ford puts food on the table as a fashion designer, since “A Single Man” is awash with “style.” This is both a compliment and a criticism because Ford has a tendency to stylize many scenes within an inch of their lives. Ford has a sharp eye for color (the contrast between George’s old, happy life vs. his stifling new one is gorgeous), but everyone in this world is a little too attractive, a little too perfectly coiffed and attired. There are a few too many close-up shots of eyes and eyebrows meant, no doubt, to be “arty.” Ford seems unwilling or unable to embrace any kind of imperfection. So Ford’s vision sometimes seems like art for art’s sake, a perfectly coordinated string of sets and costumes without much genuine feeling to ground them. The director has made it difficult for his actors to stand out.
Yet Firth manages to cut through all this calculated beauty with his aching performance, undoubtedly the best he’s ever given and one of the great cinematic performances period. Firth gives soul and heartbreaking depth to a man, played by anyone else, that we might dismiss as haughty, standoffish and superficial. More than that, he gives a bone-weary face to the grimmer aspects of universal human experience — death, grief — that won’t soon fade from memory.