After a colleague prattles on about the pressing need for a bomb shelter in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, George Falconer (Firth) coolly replies, “If there’s going to be a world with no time for sentiment, then that’s a world I won’t want to live in.”
George need not worry, because in the
world of fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker
Tom Ford’s A Single Man, sentiment is priority number one. In adapting Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Ford casts a loving gaze over his capsule of ’60s fashion and furniture, set against the autumnal days of 1962 California and of George’s life. He’s going about his day, teaching disinterested students, lending an ear to a paranoid pal, and otherwise quietly lamenting life without his lover (Goode).
George struggles to wake up every morning without him. He’s too old to start again, to love again, and his malaise may get the better of him yet. It’s all a bit melodramatic (which his narration admits early on), though that label fits Ford’s direction better than anything. Everything is shot like a dream (or, worse, a commercial) as Firth glances at clocks and gazes upon the eyes of women and the lips of boys. Flashbacks take place on windswept beaches and in black-and-white. A room in the present day literally lights up when a key figure enters — a shortcut of Pavlovian proportions that gets old fast.
In such a thoroughly handsome yet stubbornly unsubtle picture, Firth’s restrained performance is a saving grace. His George is not getting old fast, but he is getting older, and he’s no less lonely for it. (No wonder he’s thrusting Aldous Huxley’s similarly minded After Many a Summer upon his classes.)
He could drink himself into a stupor of complacency, as former flame and fellow Brit Charley (Moore, cooing it up) does. He could take up with a younger man (an impossibly plastic Hoult) and keep playing coy about his sexuality around the suspicious neighbors. But he won’t. George is simply too tired, and we watch him go through the paces of the day as if it could be his last, with Ford painting an all-too-perfect picture of suffering at every turn and Firth infusing it with something like poise every chance he gets. The way he accepts a fateful phone call; the manner with which he prepares a devious deed; his every movement echoes the life of a man whose delicate ways have served him too well to abandon now.
It’s tremendously effective work from the leading man — among the year’s best. It’s a feat of restraint within a film that coats grief in the shiniest gloss and then tops it with an abrupt, even disingenuous touch of irony. George says that he may not want to live in a world without sentiment, but from the outside looking in, it looks as if he might change his mind. The fact that we get a glimpse inside at all, though, is entirely to Firth’s credit. — William Goss