George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged British ex-pat teaching at university in sunny Southern California in 1962. A closeted homosexual by cultural necessity, he's possessed of monumental outward conformity. Inside, however, beats the heart of a true romantic. He's the sort of fellow who keeps his tastefully decorated home spotless and his reputation even more so. "It takes time in the morning for me to become George," he explains in the first of two voiceovers that bookend the film. "By the time I've dressed and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George I know fully what part I'm supposed to play."
On the face of it, the immaculately groomed and exceedingly dry George is preparing for yet another day in the classroom. But beneath that mask of staid conventionality lies the real George, a heartsick shell of a man who has found himself caught in the riptides of grief following the accidental death of his longtime companion Jim (Matthew Goode). George has decided to end it all, but there's one last day of life for him to get through.
Adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man is an exquisite and haunting feature debut from the fashion designer/icon Tom Ford. It's a melancholy meditation on love and death and hidden lives, and Ford brings everything he has to the film, not least of which is his picture-perfect designer's eye for detail, composition and the infinite subtleties of narrative shading.
A Single Man is, ultimately, Colin Firth's tour de force. He slips into the raw role of George Falconer with exactly as much precision as George brings to becoming Professor Falconer. Likewise Julianne Moore, who shows up as Charley, George's Tanqueray-drowning ex-lover, closest friend and only confidante. Their scenes together - they get trashed and dance around her place, then fall to the white shag, panting, smoking and blearily confessing to each other - have a clear-eyed sheen, booze or no booze.
When, late in the last night of his life, George runs into one of his students, the impetuous and alluring Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), both Firth and Ford seize on George's presumably final grab at life and love (of a sort). The sequence, which ends up in the inky midnight of the Pacific Ocean, has a magical grace to it.
A Single Man is an absurdly ravishing piece of filmmaking. It's not simply that Ford has a righteous eye for cinematic composition and detail; it's that everything fits perfectly, from titles to fin, but most of all Firth, who dons the role of George like a fine bespoke suit. Which, Ford being Ford, it surely was.