The fashion designer Tom Ford has taken great care with his first film, "A Single Man," (10) a meditation on grief and invisibility that he directed and wrote based on a seminal 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood (author of the source material for "Cabaret"). Each shot is carefully composed, every detail of wardrobe and scene scrupulously art-directed, and the camera lingers lovingly on mascaraed eyelashes, smartly tailored suits and, especially, toned masculine flesh. I disagree, however, with critics who compared this film to a too-perfect perfume ad--Ford's gift with style serves a purpose here, and as far as I am concerned, he has not put one foot wrong.
It helps that his film is anchored by the best lead performance by an actor this year. (Jeff Bridges is wonderful in "Crazy Heart," but the script doesn't give him nearly this much to work with.) Colin Firth (who I previously loved best for his performance as Mr. Darcy in the 6-hour 1995 PBS version of "Pride and Prejudice") here portrays George, a 50ish British expat and English professor who is sinking under the weight of his grief over the death of Jim, his lover of 16 years. Because it is 1962, this man's solitude is total; each day he puts, as he says it, the finishing touches on the nearly perfect persona that passes as George, carefully insulating the world from what it would see as filthy and unspeakable: his deep love for Jim; the lustful stirrings he is now too weary to indulge; and a grief so profound that he can no longer find a reason to go on living. Yet even while going through the motions of what he has decided will be his last day, and carefully planning every detail of a death that he is determined will be as carefully arranged as the life he has led so scrupulously, his gentleness and essential goodness shine through.
That goodness is part of what makes George so compelling. His relationship with Jim is revealed in flashbacks that radiate the warmth between them. We notice, too, the small pause each time a student or colleague asks him a question and the way he genuinely listens before making a thoughtful reply. He is kinder to women than most straight men would be, utterly sincere in his expressions of appreciation for his housekeeper's attentions and his secretary's lovely skin and hair style. And he is loyal and affectionate to his best friend Charley (wonderfully played by Julianne Moore), a boozy divorcee' and fellow expat with whom he had a years-ago brief romance. Although it meant more to her than to him (she obviously still carries a torch for him, without really understanding him), their last evening together is characterized by litte kindnesses and gentle admonitions characteristic of a long friendship.
The attentiveness that characterizes all his interactions makes the completeness of George's isolation all the more devastating; he gives lavishly the very thing he is utterly denied. Very early on the film flashes back to the phone call when George learned from one of Jim's family members (a day-and-a-half later) of his death in a car crash; before George has a chance to absorb that blow, he must endure the news that the memorial service is for "family only." A charming neighbor girl innocently tells him that her father would like to kill him, minutes before her mother sweetly invites George over for cocktails. Even Charley, to whose arms he fled the night of that awful phone call, asserts that, despite what Jim meant to him, George must surely want a "real relationship." In a rare push against the bounds of his isolation, George offers a coded lecture to his students about the perceived threat posed by invisible minorities, but is not surprised when it goes straight over their heads. "I am exactly what I appear to be, if you look closely," he tells the one young student whose flirtatious attention he has captured. He says this with the rueful smile of someone who expects that no one will.
It's rare for a film to portray so completely and truthfully such private, invisible suffering. Ford, and Firth, manage the feat not in spite of the film's somewhat artificial, staged beauty, but making full use of it. As Bob Mondello (NPR) put it, "George is a man who manages his feelings, and visualizing him in such pristine terms lets Ford highlight the tiniest of gestures: the finessing George does to navigate a can't-ask-can't-tell world; the veiled '60s hints and glances that would never even register today; and the glimmers of hope that flare unexpectedly at the edges of despair."
Any number of films have attempted to portray this type of painful history (from which we have yet to fully evolve) with much less success--in "An Education" or "Mona Lisa Smile" or "The Changeling," for example, oppression of women is portrayed so clumsily that these films add to the myth that we have solved that particular problem. The success of this film is in its completeness, its utter dedication to truth, even while clothed in unearthly beauty. Isherwood's source material, Ford's attention to detail, and Firth's soulful insight bear careful witness to a type of suffering that is sadly common not only to gay experience, but also to the experience of other outsiders. Somehow these artists know, as one character puts it, that "sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty." I left this film grateful and affirmed by that approach to telling an otherwise invisible story.