Review: ‘A Single Man’

Film Critic

We’re always looking for those performances that truly define an actor, where we can sit back and simply watch the talent soar. For Colin Firth, “A Single Man” is that film.

Until now probably best known for his work in the “Bridget Jones” films -- the stuffy, sensitive suitor forever in the shadow of Hugh Grant’s roguish charmer -- his portrayal of George, the single man that he imbues with amazing grace, should change all that.

George is 52, a Briton transplanted to L.A., where he’s been an English professor for years. George is also gay at a time -- the early ‘60s -- when being open about such things wasn’t commonplace. The man he loves has died, sending him first into depression and then on a mission to simply end it all. That’s the back story. Our tragedy actually begins on the day George has decided will be his last.

Fashion designer Tom Ford, who made a name as the glamour guy at Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and now with his own label, has constructed an impressive directing debut out of Christopher Isherwood’s dark novel. A character study is a good fit, giving Ford the chance to use what he knows about staging, which is considerable.

Life and death are equally beautiful, equally seductive, as are as the sets, the faces, the cars and the clothes, which Ford designed himself. Everything on-screen mirrors the time, down to the buttons. No detail is random, whether the clocks that tick as George moves through his final day, the people he encounters, the burial suit meticulously laid out with “a Windsor knot” noted on the card placed over the tie.

Even the death that starts it all -- Jim (Matthew Goode, very good as George’s significant other) being tossed from a car on an icy road -- has a beauty to it.

As this is also a love story, a paean to a relationship that worked, the film begins and ends with a kiss, gentle and chaste, setting a tone that will stay. Color adds its own subtext, with Ford and director of photography Eduard Grau creating a shifting palette: color leaching out of George any time he distances himself from the real world.

There’s a line buried deep inside “A Single Man” that captures quite nicely the tension on-screen: “Sometimes, awful things have their own kind of beauty.” Knowing George, as we do by now, the mind immediately goes to death. But what’s actually inspired the remark is a brilliant flamingo-pink sunset courtesy of L.A. pollution, which brings you back around to the notion of deadly things.

Like nearly all the scenes in the film, it invites deconstruction. That sunset finds George outside a liquor store that looks as worn and desolate as his mood. Then, a chance conversation with a young hustler named Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) lingering near the phone booth out front becomes a reminder that the most random of events, the slightest human connection, can change everything.

In jeans and a tight white T-shirt and taking slow drags off a cigarette, Carlos looks for all the world like a brooding James Dean wannabe, which, it turns out, he is. George can’t stop looking at him, and frankly, neither could I. At times like this, the film can feel like one of those gorgeous fashion spreads filled with impossible cheekbones, chiseled bodies and moody glances.

The danger, of course, is that perfection will become the flaw, and “A Single Man” drifts perilously close. There are no unattractive people here, at least not ones that matter, and the world they live in is polished to a high sheen. But then, “A Single Man” is more allegory than reality, so for the most part perfection works.

Center stage, of course, is Firth. Without him to provide the soul, all that saturated beauty would count for nothing. He holds George together with such care and breaks him apart just as carefully. One of many grace notes comes as he takes the call telling him of Jim’s accident. There is such stillness as the words hit him, as if to react would be to make it real.

Isherwood surrounded George with a handful of significant others, each designed to fill in the missing pieces, and the film does the same. Some the director holds closely to -- Ginnifer Goodwin is spot on as the classically manicured suburban wife with her energetic brood, and Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the student with a pressing intellect. Others, Ford has his way with. Best friend Charley ( Julianne Moore), in particular, has gone from earthy and overweight to vogue and stylishly thin.

All in all, a very solid ensemble encircles Firth, though Moore is absolutely buoyant. A luscious lush, she oozes mod sophistication, despite the bouffant. She is just ahead of the feminist movement that saved many like her, so Valium, vodka and George’s friendship will have to do. Moore hasn’t had quite this much fun with a role in awhile -- or so the slow twist to music and laughter would lead you to believe.

For the most part, Ford has done good by the film, infusing a sad story with warmth and humor to spare. While loss is what makes George’s experience universal, heart is what gives him such life.