See This: A Single Man (2009, Tom Ford)
Fashion designer Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel, A Single Man, is an astonishing directorial debut. Set in 1962, sun-bleached Los Angles at the height of the Cuban missile crisis burns off the screen. The detail, look and mood of the film transport you so completely back in time that you'll swear the movie was made in 1962. That accomplishment alone would have been something, but the performances Ford gets from Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult make this one of the best films of the year. It might be a "period piece," but the subject matter has never been more timely.
Firth plays George, a grieving college professor, whose longtime lover, Jim, was killed months earlier in a car accident while visiting his family in Colorado. Since it's the '60s and homosexuals are invisible perverts, George finds out about Jim's death days after the tragedy in a phone call from an anonymous family member. Jim's parents refused to call George and have made the funeral for "family only." The grief Firth summons up for this scene, as he crumples into his chair and tears stream down his cheeks, is heartbreaking. There are numerous dream sequences where Firth is naked underwater, metaphorically drowning in grief.
The film unfolds over a single day, so much of it is told in flashback as we see how George and Jim met and fell in love. During the course of this day, George carefully plans his suicide. He empties his safe deposit box of insurance papers, writes notes, presses his best suit and lays it all out on the dining room table with instructions. George is that kind of meticulous, middle-aged man, yet he doesn't seem fussy and Firth refuses to play him as camp.
Over the course of planning his suicide, George has several encounters that make him question his decision. One is with Charley (another fantastic performance from Julianne Moore), his boozy best friend with whom he shared a brief affair with back in England. During dinner, Charley wants to rekindle their affair and intimates that the life George had with Jim wasn't a "real relationship."
Another encounter is outside a liquor store with a Spanish hustler, Carlos, (Jon Kortajarena), who came to LA to be an actor and sports a smoldering James Dean look. George and Carlos share a cigarette and subtle flirtations in the parking lot framed by a giant billboard for Hitchcock's "Psycho." The scene has an Almodovar quality -- so maybe it's no coincidence that Carlos is from Madrid. George gives Carlos money, but refuses sex.
The last encounter is with Kenny (the scorchingly hot Nicholas Hoult, who played the geeky kid in About a Boy and was a regular on the UK series Skins), a college student in lust, if not in love, with George. Ford lavishes the camera on Hoult with angelic lighting to highlight his penetrating blue eyes and smooth skin. Kenny has followed George around all day and suspects his professor is suicidal.
Kenny is the one who, almost literally, saves George from drowning in grief. They skinny dip together, flirt at George's home and the sexual tension between them is palpable. Watching Kenny sleep, George realizes there is something -- and perhaps someone else -- to live for. And then... well, I can't tell you. The final few minutes of the film are unexpected -- and sad -- but we last see George with a nearly beatific smile on his face.
Bravo to Tom Ford for making a film about a gay man without making a "gay film." Forty years on, and the LGBT community might not be invisible, but the "pervert" label still sticks, so Ford handily draws those parallels without making it political. Kudos to Colin Firth for what will surely get him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He deserves to win.