Film opens Dec. 25: Making his debut as a movie director, the fashion designer Tom Ford has ambitiously chosen to adapt Christopher Isherwood's masterly 1964 short novel A Single Man. In its day, the book was quietly revolutionary in its matter-of-fact depiction of a fateful day in the life of a gay, middle-aged Englishman in Los Angeles. George, an English professor at a small college—played here with exquisite subtlety and deep feeling by Colin Firth—is a man struggling to find a reason to live in the aftermath of an accident that took the life of his younger lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), with whom he'd lived for 16 years. True to the times (1962), when homosexuals were still an invisible minority, he was barred from Jim's memorial, which was for "family only." (Article continued below…)
Ford's movie, like the novel, is an inner journey, weaving pungent memories into the everyday details of George's life. He lectures to his uncomprehending students, speaking in code about the hatred of minorities. He declines the advances of a flirtatious Spanish hustler. He dines with his closest friend and fellow Brit, Charlotte (Julianne Moore), and at the end of the day, in the same beachfront bar where he met Jim, George finds himself pursued by an admiring, flirtatious young student (Nicholas Hoult, the kid in About a Boy, grown into a blue-eyed beauty). Ford and co-writer David Scearce have added an element of suspense you won't find in Isherwood's book: George's intention to commit suicide before day's end.
The movie has a hushed, sensual intensity and formal elegance that leaves no doubt Ford knows what he's doing behind the camera. A Single Man, as you might expect, is beautiful to look at—too beautiful, in fact. Ford's devotion to style can become a distraction. Do all the men George cruises have to be so fashion-model gorgeous? A black-and-white flashback to George and Jim sunning on jagged rocks looks right out of an old Calvin Klein ad. Would Isherwood's professor live in an Architectural Digest midcentury home and have drawers of perfectly folded clothes? Charlotte's lair, bursting with fabulous early '60s furniture, is similarly overly art-directed. Still, that's where one of the movie's most riveting and revealing scenes is set—a long, intimate, drunken evening where all the simmering tensions between George and his closest confidante bubble up. A Single Man's sleek surface may go against Isherwood's crisp, understated prose, yet the story's beating, wounded heart and its spiky intelligence still come through, personified in Firth's moving, eloquently internalized performance. In its microcosmic way, A Single Man addresses mighty big questions—love, death, and the difficulty and necessity of living in the Now.