A Single Man might just be the most downbeat film ever made about finding the beauty of life. And yet its tragedy, its stunningly dreary depiction of a lovelorn English professor as the color fades in and out of his world, it finds a beauty worthy of great literature.
Indeed, the film is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, and the adaptation, written by David Scearce and celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford, and directed by Ford in the year's most extraordinary feature debut, captures that feeling that is so distinctly literary: the fading of glory, the flickering of one's life force, the sad, beautiful demise of one's soul. And yet Ford's film is also uniquely cinematic, a visual experience unlike any other in 2009, one that would be beautiful in snapshots, but with the addition of camera movement, orchestral scoring, and amazing performances becomes painful in its subtext and vivid in its exploration of life.
Colin Firth plays George, a professor who suffers quietly through every day. George lost the love of his life, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident, and ever since the color has faded from his world -- literally. Now George has made a decision: this is the last day of his life. He enters the day as any other, counseling himself, preparing himself to "become George," as if his life force was killed alongside Jim in that car crash. "Just get through today," he tells himself in the mirror, knowing that when today is over, he won't have to wake up again.
The film follows George throughout what he intends as his last day, in 1962 Los Angeles. He unburdens his soul to his students, who stare at him dumbfounded. He makes plans with his best friend, Charlotte (Julianne Moore, in another incredible performance), without telling her that he means tonight to be their last private party. He arranges his estate and leaves a gun in his desk drawer, in anticipation of the final moment. But as George moves through the day, with the knowledge that he will no longer witness the world around him, a funny thing happens: he begins to pay attention. For the first time, he begins to see, in acute detail, the beauty of the world around him. The innocence of the little girl next door, the impeccable physical beauty of the male prostitute who attempts to pick him up outside a convenience store, the snapshot of a smile, the blink of an eye -- for the first time since Jim's death, perhaps for the first time in his life, George sees the intricate beauty of the world. He sees life. The color returns, ever-so-briefly, to his world.
Firth's performance is extraordinary, reaching depths of emotion he has never before attempted in his career. George is a character of brutal pain who finds brief hope in the snapshots of life, and Firth exudes the subtlety of the dualing forces in George's world: the power of his depression versus the beautiful world that calls for his participation. As his platonic soulmate, who has lived patiently under the delusion that one day her friend would become her lover, Moore embodies the tragic naivete of a 1950s ingenue who, as the 50s ended and 60s began, her life force was left behind. Her only desire is to have George love her, but he can't. Even though she knows, she purposefully puts it out of her mind. The futile quest for George is all Charley has to cling to. These are people whose glory has faded, and the lights are dimming, and all that's left is a shell. But George begins to see the life that's left to live; Charley only sees the hope of what can never be.
Tom Ford has been one of the fashion world's most venerated designers for years, and as a filmmaker he seems to peel back that glossy, artificial wall between fashion and its subjects. Fashion photography functions more like high-end art that reflects a silent pain, and A Single Man takes those images and adds the layers of cinema to cast a spell unlike any other 2009 film. Ford's command of the frame, and his audacious attempt to bust out of the frame and touch the soul, is phenomenal. He is a virtuoso, and his film is a bleak, intimate, gorgeous masterpiece.