Movie News & Reviews

'A Single Man': A singular film about invisible grief

His nightmares take him to a distant, wintry road, a crashed car and a body, lying bloody and lifeless, sprawled in the snow. His days are just as cold and lifeless. He's a college professor who, from the moment he awakens, just goes through the motions.

It's 1962. Cuban Missile Crisis? He barely notices.

The grief that George Falconer (Colin Firth) suffers in A Single Man is restrained, guarded. He is English after all. And he's gay. The dead man (Matthew Goode, Leap Year) was his lover of 16 years. George wasn't even allowed at the funeral. He never said goodbye, and being an "invisible" minority, as he cryptically says to his class, he has to "adjust to what is expected, how we are supposed to behave."

Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford's film of Christopher Isherwood's novel is an exquisite character study in grief — a compact, mournful week in the life of a man who has decided that life isn't worth living. And that Cuban missile thing that people keep talking about isn't changing his view.

The movie is built on three Oscar- caliber performances. Firth, fit and trim and bespectacled, is a man hiding everything, keeping it all under cover, even his broken heart. This — another great performance from an actor who has been delivering them since his definitive Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — might be Firth's Oscar winner.

Julianne Moore is the wreck of an ex-girlfriend from long ago, the only person in Santa Monica to whom George can turn for comfort. Moore slings a British accent, smokes and drowns herself in gin, every bit as ruined as George. And Goode, seen in flashbacks, is the very picture of love remembered — tall, dark and handsome, perfectly preserved in George's dreams.

Ford lets his camera linger in close-ups, capturing the nuances of the face George sees in his bathroom mirror, not so much a face as "the expression of a predicament." Moore's dissolution and bitterness are sublime as a woman of a certain age who can still pull it all together on those rare occasions when she has the will to do it.

George makes time for small talk with a neighbor's child, with a Spanish hustler who tries to pick him up, with a colleague who presses him to build a bomb shelter or with a student (Nicholas Hoult) who seems more interested in George than his class. But George is in no hurry. He has made up his mind. He has Puccini (Madama Butterfly) on the record player — a rare gay cliché slipped in here.

Ford has made an auspicious film debut, showing a cinematic eye and ear, and a sympathetic feel for grief — buried, crippling, a downward spiral that only time and some sort of shock to the system can cure. His first time out, Ford has made one of the best films of the year.