Watching 2009’s A Single Man out of sequence with 2010’s hit The King’s Speech puts Colin Firth’s performances in both in a different light and certainly removes the possibility of prejudicial viewings of the latter. I can say with absolute confidence that Firth could have won his Oscar for either of them, and that I actually prefer his work in A Single Man more (which is not to disparage the former film). So rarely do we see Firth in roles distinguished by a central identity of cynicism, nihilism, and angst, that seeing him portray George Falconer– whose partner Jim (Matthew Goode) died eight months prior to the events of the film– over the course of one day in the man’s life feels bold and invigorating. Unlike The King’s Speech, A Single Man anchors none of its background players in a spotlight that is definitively Firth’s; they come and go, making their presences felt intermittently, and ultimately the film rests solely on the shoulders of its mastered, brilliant, measured lead.
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, A Single Man follows the titular character, a professor living in Los Angeles, as he lives out what he intends to be the last day of his life. He reveals his end-game (or strongly hints at it, if you’re not the guessing type) fairly early into the narrative as he prepares to expose himself to the world one last time and settle his life’s affairs, which include teaching his final class and sharing dinner with his friend Charley (Julianne Moore). George’s day is punctuated by chance encounters with strangers (a student, a neighbor, a prostitute) and moments of introspection as he rolls his loss over in his head and flashes back to memories of his time with Jim; we’re allowed to survey the circumference of the man and fully grasp the degree to which his lover’s death has shaken him.
Director Tom Ford allows all of this to play out quietly and makes the wise decision to give his leading man a true stage on which to perform. A Single Man is quiet, thoughtful, and unassuming, subtly building toward a climax both mournful and life-affirming at the same time. For the most part, Ford masks his own presence, and he most loudly announces himself when the color palette ebbs and flows between over-saturation and near-black and white dreariness as the tantalizing delights of living butt in on George’s grief. But this is the most noticeable, surface trick in his repertoire; the other elements he brings to bear, including a keen eye for composition brought out in the picture’s exquisite cinematography, are kept simple yet gorgeous and often breathtaking without distracting from the film’s performances.
In a way, Ford’s work here compliments George’s position in life– just as George himself, a homosexual man living in a foreign country during a time when his lifestyle was looked on even less kindly than it is today, is isolated in his fashion, so too does Ford actively isolate him through his minimalist, but confident, direction. George’s alienation isn’t entirely born of the machinations of performer and director, either; even when he interacts with supporting characters, George keeps them at arm’s length, ostensibly surrounding himself with a wall to guard himself and maybe even others as well. One might say I’m reading into the film a bit much here, but the little details of Ford’s approach to the film combine beautifully and help make A Single Man a cinematic experience worth savoring.
More than anything else of course, Ford knows well enough to stay out of Firth’s way and let him weave George’s narrative through his own craft. After all, A Single Man‘s real raison d’etre is Firth’s performance, which alone makes the film worth praising. Firth, indeed, is entirely that good, bringing every one of his strengths as an actor to bear in his portrayal of Mr. Falconer. Firth instills in George the actor’s own brand of cheeky wit, and the same sort of vulnerability seen in The King’s Speech as well; most of all, Firth uses his mastery over his expressive face to excellent effect, knowing full well that a nuanced glance can convey volumes more than the words of a screenwriter. George is despondent and yet also angry, and in the midst of all of these, he still has the capacity to be swayed by the tempting promise of hope that his anguish, great as it may be, can dissipate with time. Firth’s performance is layered, multi-faceted, and devastating, and if for no other reason, A Single Man should be seen for him.
The supporting cast pull their weight, but they ultimately exist less for themselves and more for the chance to make Firth look good. Moore, most of all, is a delight as Charley, a woman similarly lost in her own life (for totally different reasons), and who doesn’t quite grasp the nature of her relationship with George. Goode and Hoult round out the cast as George’s deceased lover and one of his students, respectively; Goode makes Jim into a clear yang to George’s yin, playing him opposite to Firth’s personality and giving some weight to their relationship, while Hoult lends youthful optimism to George’s narrative.
A Single Man marks Ford’s debut picture, a testament to his talent since his film could easily be mistaken as the product of a much more mature and established artist. Put simply, I’d like to see more; his movie suggests a confidence in his mastery over the medium, but he surely has more to learn and even more to offer. But more than Ford, A Single Man is a triumph for Firth, who undeniably establishes himself as one of the strongest leading men of the day and one of the finest actors of his generation. Together they tell an affecting story of a man weighed down by his despair, and somehow find beauty and hope in his ennui.