A Single Man; R, 99 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

A Single Man; R, 99 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

It’s hard not to notice that A Single Man’s timing seems a little awkward.  

For starters, it will inevitably be confused with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, and both movies follow horn-rimmed sad sacks who feel trapped in the peculiar quicksand of 1960s Americana.

Colin Firth navigates the simultaneous numbness and volatility that mourning can bring in A Single Man.

What’s more, it might be too late to get a great film from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of one day in a closeted man’s suddenly lonely life. Certainly director Tom Ford and co-writer David Scearce seem to take that seminal gay-lib text for granted. An established fashion designer who made his name peddling erotically flamboyant luxury, Ford sees A Single Man as sedulous diversion: just one long and lovely and carefully struck pose.
In 1962, as Soviet missiles are piling up in Cuba and college kids are giving up in Los Angeles, Colin Firth is George Falconer, clearly the best dressed professor of English ever to walk the earth. Having just learned of his lover’s death, George has taken to radiating grief in sartorial magnificance, thinking suicidal thoughts and trudging around his immaculate home. He has a support system of sorts, cobbled together from a fetching, boozy best friend (Julianne Moore), a flirty student in a fuzzy sweater (Nicholas Hoult), and a full-on come-hither hustler (Jon Kortajarena), but nothing quite lights George up like the memory of his soulmate, who’s played in flashbacks by Matthew Goode.
In fact, Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau take lighting up literally: George’s better moments are offset from the pallid status quo with a periodic efflorescence. As if Firth’s face, here a marvel of emotive subtlety and control, somehow weren’t enough to get the point across. That’s really the best and most confounding thing going on here: an extraordinary central performance without which the whole movie, flan-like confection that it is, might completely collapse. It’s astonishing to see how nimbly Firth navigates the simultaneous numbness and volatility that mourning can bring. And it’s frustrating to see him, along with every other shrewdly self-possessed performer in his supporting cast, not so much directed as tastefully arranged within the frame.
Given the milieu of a hazy, uneasy neverland, somewhere between conservative cultural nostalgia and foundational progressive mythology, it’s no surprise that Ford should want to reduce all of A Single Man’s feeling to a languid fashion-mag swoon. (Is that moment set in front of a billboard for Hitchcock’s Psycho actually meaningful, or just something the filmmaker saw in another movie once?) But his characterization of the dapper, depressive George risks reinforcing a mopey and preening stereotype—the core of queer vanity behind a veil of hollow flair—that Isherwood sought preemptively to peel away. Funny, and sad, how times have changed.