A Single Man begins underwater. George (Colin Firth) is swimming, or maybe drowning, or in some way trying to get to a surface. The camera is close on his body, tight shots that create a sense of fragmentation even deep inside the fluidy blue. Indeed, you learn soon after, he is feeling broken and breathless. His lover has been killed in a car accident, and he is now, most unhappily, A Single Man.
In his non-nightmare life, George is a British ex-pat teaching English at a small Los Angeles college. He’s suffered his loss around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an era when gay couples were hardly well accepted, even in California. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel by fashion designer-turned film director Tom Ford (whose Menswear line provides Firth’s wardrobe), the story is part internal agony and part projection onto the world, as George grieves and remembers his apparently faultless and rather younger boyfriend, Jim (Matthew Goode) — as well, in one harrowing phone call scene, as Jim’s phobic family, who refused to let him attend the funeral and as much as accused him of ruining their dearly departed.
In Ford’s version of the story, George is planning suicide as well, which means that he’s arranging his affairs, cleaning out his desks, and trying to figure the least horrific ritual. During these preparations, he’s able to spend long minutes thinking back, of course, images of the romance as he’s disposed to recall it, splendid and affectionate and, more than anything else, beautiful. Whether he’s recalling a waterside romantic interlude in sepia or imagining Jim’s bloodied body alongside his car in the snow, George thinks in tableaus. “Sometimes,” he muses, while gazing on the L.A. skyline, coral-colored at sunset, “Awful things have their own kind of beauty.” Hmmm.
George’s mourning and lamenting are occasionally interrupted by encounters with actual people, from students to colleagues to perfect strangers. Or, maybe not so much interrupted as enhanced. When he agrees at last to accept a dinner invitation from fellow dislocated Brit Charley (Julianne Moore), he sees it as a way to say goodbye, though she can’t know this until the next morning, when she’s supposed to learn of his death and read his last, inevitably sad, letter to her. Charley’s a former lover, who once came to the States with him in hopes of starting a wonderful life together. It didn’t work out, as George came to know himself more acutely, but she’s remained stuck on that moment in the past.
Her suspended moment is not unlike his, as each mourns a loss and neither can make a next step. Their evening lurches from fake contentment to performative delirium, as they drink themselves into non-oblivion. As the frames tilt and their faces grow red, Charley laughs too loud and George judges, entreating her to let go of the past. It’s hard to say whether her apparent desperation is actually hers, or if it’s his translation (or even need) of her feelings, filtered through his own desperation. The movie here teeters between his perspective and hers, leaving you to sort out the excess and the awkwardness, the lack of resolution and mutual resentment.
George’s own version of letting go isn’t quite coherent either, even as he thinks a lot about death is one option. En route, he imagines other possible desires, as if to test his own loyalty and confirm his sense of loss. In one, utterly gorgeous instance, he meets a young beauty, Carlos (Jon Kortajerena), a hustler from Madrid, his tight jeans, white t-shirt, and smoldery eyes part All-American and James Deanish and part exotic. The stereotyping is certainly tedious, even as their backdrop — a parking lot wall mural of Janet Leigh’s frightened eyes in Psycho — frames the moment as plainly artificial, a dream in tinseltown, a daydream made exciting by its ostensible illicitness.
Even more illicit is George’s attraction to his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). They meet up more than once during George’s intended last day, meetings that reveal the kid’s simultaneous allure and ache, his crush on his teacher and his titillation. As George mulls over his options, made seemingly less consequential by his plan, he doesn’t quite appreciate Kenny’s weakness, strengths or desire. As they challenge and play with one another, the movie becomes both more fantastic and more predictable. If it doesn’t end as it begins, that is, underwater, it does go pretty much nowhere.