A Single Man is the single biggest surprise I have had at the movies all year. It is brilliant, beautiful, superbly acted, and emotionally devastating. It is one of those movies that will haunt you for days and weeks to come after viewing it.
*Minor spoilers in this review* The opening credits are set to an underwater scene depicting a man gently lolling about in the waves in slow motion. A voice-over by George (Colin Firth) states that it has been 8 months since he lost his male partner in a car crash, and yet everyday “Waking up hurts.”
George is starting to believe that life will never really return to normal, and the day we witness in the film is actually the day that George has decided to kill himself. Fastidious to a fault, he meticulously lays out the outfit he wishes to be buried in, going so far as to leave instructions on how he wants his necktie to be knotted (Windsor-style.)
He goes to work at a University, where he is an English Professor, and delivers a scathing diatribe on fear to his students. He cleans out his office, says his goodbyes and returns home. He becomes frustrated when he cant find the perfect position to off himself in, and decides to visit his hot-mess lush of a lady friend Charly (Julianne Moore). They share a few drinks and laughs, but when she starts trying to rekindle long dead flames, he flees.
George runs to a neighborhood bar, the very one where he met his beloved Jim 16 years ago. He is startled and amused to find a student there, who has been following him. The student is on a journey of sexual (and self) discovery, and believes that George might be the appropriate person to confide in about these matters.
The two end up sharing a midnight swim in the ocean, and as George becomes buffeted by the surf and starts to flail, the student (Nicholas Hoult) quite literally becomes George’s angel and drags him to the safety of shore. It becomes a rebirth of sorts, and suddenly George harbors a shred of hope for his future.
The attention to details, both artistic and technical, elevate this film to greatness. Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, the film evokes a distinctly Mad Men-esque feel. The film takes place in 1962. The fashion, the glasses, the cars, the architecture, the dresses, the hair, and the makeup–these all are so indicative of the time period. You even have the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop, giving the whole movie a gloomy type of palpable dread.
In 1962, men could not be openly gay, and that sets up the most brilliant piece of acting in the movie. When George receives a phone call from Jim’s cousin to inform him of Jim’s passing, it is absolutely horrifying to witness his emotional breakdown upon hearing the news. To make matters worse, no one was even going to tell him, the cousin called against the family’s wishes. Then, comes the kick in the gut that the service is for family members only.
George is not even allowed to attend the funeral of the man he has lived with for 16 years. Its almost unbearable to watch Colin Firth crumbling into his chair as the full weight of the news hits him. Not even 10 minutes into this movie, and I was shattered.
Firth is amazing in this role. He is one of the most authentic gay characters ever brought to film, yet he is entirely relatable. His pain is universal, and something that anyone who has ever loved someone will take to heart, no matter their sexual orientation.
Despite having a rather small role, Julianne Moore is great as Charly. Her wistful sadness over never being able to have the one thing she wants (George) is really touching. They are best friends, but he is completely unattainable.
Fresh scrubbed blue-eyed Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, Skins) has the right combination of naivete and prowess to be convincing as the student/savior.
The artistic flair that Tom Ford brings to this movie is undeniable. He makes use of sepia, black and white, and full color in a wholly original way, seamlessly shifting from one to another to convey the altering moods of George.
He also makes great use of sound. When George finds out about Jim’s death, he runs, wailing, to Charly’s house. Ford allows the entire scene to occur completely absent of sound. It makes the moment more dramatic than any soundtrack ever could.
Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski provides a beautiful score to accompany the movie. Before I go into an entire treatise, I’ll stop there. Simply put, A Single Man is one of the year’s best.