Gay cinema has been a difficult medium to explore. Most films involving a gay main character follow one of two paths: either they play up the high camp to make an over-the-top spectacle, or they get bogged down in heavy-handed melodrama that makes it seem like being gay is the greatest tragedy anyone could ever face. But every once in while, a film is made that avoids both paths and blazes a new one: a strong gay central character that isn't defined by his sexuality, and a film that focuses on his story rather than his partners. A Single Man was this kind of film.
The film takes place in Southern California in the 1960s, where George Falconer (Colin Firth), a college professor, is dealing with the loss of his partner, Jim, to a horrific car accident. Following the course of one day, George has decided this will be his last day on Earth, intending to kill himself that night. The film presents George as a man with nothing left emotionally, an empty shell of a man who, despite the temptations of both his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), cannot muster the will to carry on without Jim.
Oh, but what a magnificent empty shell that is! Firth squeezes so many dimensions into George, and portrays him to such heartbreaking effect, its impossible not to feel his pain, especially in one of the earliest, and best, scenes: a flashback to when George first receives the call that Jim has died. Firth's tone implies that it is only a mere discomfort (in order to not reveal their secret relationship), but in his face is the devastation that he really feels. Its a top-notch performance from Firth, the best I've seen so far this year.
Julianne Moore plays it loose as Charley, George's best friend and former love interest before he became interested in men. Charley, a heavy drinker and leisurely gossip, still pines for George, but must relent to the fact that what they once had will never be again. It's a fine performance from the always-great Moore.
The true breakthrough here, though, is director/co-writer Tom Ford, the former fashion designer for Gucci. Ford layers the production with intricate period detail, complete with the proper '60s make-up and color palate. His attention to detail is a marvel, but more so is his fantastic use of color in the cinematography. Throughout the film, while the rest of the world is painted in the most vibrant color, George is almost always seen through a filter of grays, a beautiful artistic representation of the mood of the characters. Its depressing to see that Ford's direction has been ignored all awards season; look for him to create a glorious career as a director in the future.
A Single Man is a gorgeous meditation on the life of a man who's lost his love; gay or straight, its a heartbreaking love story that knows its characters and keeps its heart in the right place.