Anyone who has ever lost a loved one, whether it be by death or distance, knows this. As does George Falconer (Colin Firth), a heartbroken man confronting a life alone after the death of his lover, Jim, played by Matthew Goode, in Tom Ford’s A Single Man.
George is a man adrift. Since Jim’s death he has been barely keeping his head above water (it is no coincidence that a recurring motif in the film involves a shot of George, naked, in a body of water) and has finally concluded that this must end. Today is the day that he will end his life. It is this day that the film revolves around, following George as he forces himself out of bed. He dresses, spends some time watching his neighbours from the privacy of his toilet — and then begins to make the necessary preparations to end his life.
In the course of these tasks, George visits the bank to put his affairs in order and there, he retrieves a nude photograph of Jim from his safe deposit box. As he studies the image, a flashback takes us to a happier time as George and Jim lay entwined on a beach and discuss relationships — theirs, and that of George’s with his longtime friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozy, overly coiffed and made-up blonde with whom he once had a brief sexual affair. When Jim wonders why it is that George did not continue his affair with Charley, George tells him that he falls in love with men, and more precisely that he fell in love with him.
Later, when George visits Charley, she drunkenly reveals that she thinks that while he loved Jim, their relationship was a substitute for something else, something real. Naturally, George is offended by this. In fact, this is perhaps the defining statement of A Single Man: love is love. It is irrelevant that the love here was between two men. Jim was George’s one true love, and they loved each other for sixteen years. If that doesn’t count, what does? Does it make George’s reality any less painful?
George continues to grieve, ignoring the possibility of new relationships and a new beginning, offered first in a random encounter outside a liquor store and then with one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, who has certainly survived the curse of childhood fame — he was previously seen in About a Boy). Despite a tender encounter with Kenny, George cannot escape the pain of Jim’s death.
Firth’s performance is subtle and layered; George maintains an aloof facade that he has probably spent a lifetime perfecting, but he uses it now to contain the grief he lives with. Firth never breaks from this in the “now” of George’s life, and his restraint makes the story.
And Ford’s direction makes the film. The washed out colour of the present day juxtaposes perfectly with the vibrancy of the flashbacks to George’s life with Jim. A fashion photographer, Ford obviously has an eye for detail, and the choices here, both in the direction and visual imagery of the film as well as set and costume, reflect his background and the mood that he chose to project in A Single Man.
Such attention to detail is evident also in the twist at the film’s conclusion. It is ultimately not one that is senseless. George is heartbroken. One way or the other, this much is clear: that is no way to live.