A Single Man proves a film can look and feel like a 99-minute perfume commercial and still register as a poignant meditation on grief, memory, and loss. It’s the directorial debut of Tom Ford, a wildly successful fashion designer who luxuriates in impeccably composed images and unapologetic eroticism. It’s a film of stunning beauty and deep underlying sadness, a self-financed labor of love filled with impossibly gorgeous, oft-unclothed men and dazzling eye candy.
In a revelatory performance, Colin Firth plays an English professor in Southern California who has lurched into a suicidal depression following the death of his longtime lover Matthew Goode. The film follows the stylish, impeccably dressed Firth as he goes about his daily routine and lays the groundwork for his impending suicide. Firth wants everything to be in place when he exits the earth; in his mind, death via self-inflicted gunshot need not be sloppy or disorganized. But life has a way of messing up even the best-laid plans. Firth’s determination to kill himself is complicated by the unrelenting sexual advances of a pretty young male student (Nicholas Hoult) and a clumsy drunken pass by Firth’s glamorous, self-destructive best friend (Julianne Moore). Moore and Hoult aren’t the only ones infatuated with Firth; at a liquor store, a gorgeous young Spanish hustler tries to pick him up as well. The aura of ineffable sadness surrounding Firth apparently serves as a potent aphrodisiac.
Firth only has a few scenes, all flashbacks, with Goode, yet Ford—who adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel with co-screenwriter David Scearce—manages to create a central relationship of lived-in tenderness, comfort, and abiding love in spite of Goode’s limited screen time. It’s easy to see why Firth would be inconsolable at losing the wonderful life he built with his soulmate over 16 happy years, and not just because Goode, like everyone and everything else in the film, is so unconscionably attractive. A Single Man is a film of tremendous style wedded to real substance, and rooted in Firth’s affecting lead performance as a man trying to keep it together for one last day after his world has fallen apart.