"A Single Man" takes place in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. It centers on the complicated life in and out of the head of British college professor George (Firth). The film begins at a climatic moment one would expect to see in the middle, rather than beginning, of a story. George's lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), dies in a car crash.
From there, the film becomes one of those films where the story is less a plot and more of an idea. George copes with the pain of losing his lover. He seeks solace in liquor, an old flame (Moore), and a curious young student (Nicholas Hoult).
Much praise has been heaped upon Firth. This is no surprise; he is able to express so much in so little. George is a character who keeps much of his true self hidden, and Firth always gives George a little less than a smile and a little less than a frown. We know he is not emotionless, and he eventually proves not to be.
Perhaps one of the most moving scenes of the year was made possible by Firth's incredibly real acting. After getting the call that Jim was killed, George breaks down and cries. However, it is not a loud, over-the-top reaction. Rather, he remains silent. His silence increases the intensity of his reaction more than any scream could.
The film also contains an excellent, yet too brief, performance by Julianne Moore. She revives her British accent from "The Big Lebowski" and brings something of an uplifting spirit to an otherwise saddening story.
It may sound strange, but one of the strongest features of "A Single Man" is also its only real weakness: the directing. The film was directed by Tom Ford, a fashion designer. For a directorial debut, it's somewhat impressive, and very promising.
Ford has already begun to establish a style. He directs the film like a fashion designer, paying very close attention to color and small details. He really loves color. Ford truly does embrace the aspect of style, and he tries to use it to enhance the substance. There are times when this works. For example, throughout the film, George is constantly shot with washed out colors. Meanwhile, every time Kenny (the young student) enters the frame, George's world lights up with warm, lively colors.
Details like this work because they are subtle. However, other overly artistic details in the film don't work at all. While the very strange way George looks at his neighbors serves to show how conflicted he is between lifestyles, the continuous freeze frames also take away some of the seriousness of the story. At other moments, George will be in the middle of experiencing an emotional breakthrough and Ford's over-the-top direction will give away exactly what we're supposed to get on our own from the complexity of Firth's performance.
The major problem of this film is that the director, the film's leader, is too present. While Ford is talented, he is also dealing with an extremely talented cast of actors. Without his constant intervention, their talents could have wowed us even further. While all of the best directors leave their personal stamp on every film they make, everyone else involved should be allowed to leave their mark as well.
Despite some small hiccups, Ford manages to get both the story and themes across effectively. In fact, George manages to come off as fully developed despite being someone who can barely express his true feelings. It seems that the whole point of the film is to do the best any film can to get inside someone's head from an outsider perspective. We see a fully realized world of confusion and uncertainty.
"A Single Man" is the first movie in recent years with a gay main character not to make a huge deal of the character's sexuality. The word "gay" is never used once in the film. Given the time period, most men were beyond closeted, and homosexuality seemed basically impossible. The relationship between George and Jim is used to convey the sense of freedom and openness that is trapped inside of him. The film becomes one about finding identity and reaching clarity.
The greatest thing Tom Ford does with "A Single Man" is that he makes it a love story that's neither a gay love story nor a straight love story but rather just a love story about understanding love and dealing with loss.