It’s hard not to notice that “A Single Man”’s timing seems a little awkward. For starters, there’s that inevitable confusion with the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” and the fact of both movies having to do with horn-rimmed sad sacks who feel trapped in the peculiar quicksand of 1960s Americana.
What’s more, maybe it’s just too late now to get a great film from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of one day in a closeted man’s suddenly lonely life. Certainly director Tom Ford and co-writer David Scearce seem to take that seminal gay-lib text for granted. An established fashion designer who made his name peddling erotically flamboyant luxury, Ford sees “A Single Man” as sedulous diversion: just one long and lovely and carefully struck pose.
In 1962, as Soviet missiles are piling up in Cuba and college kids are giving up in Los Angeles, Colin Firth is George Falconer, quite clearly the best dressed professor of English ever to have walked the Earth. Upon learning of his lover’s death, George has taken to radiating sartorially magnificent grief, thinking suicidal thoughts and trudging around in his splendid home. He has a support system of sorts, cobbled together from a fetchingly boozy best friend (Julianne Moore), a flirty student in a fuzzy sweater (Nicholas Hoult), and a full-on come-hither hustler (Jon Kortajarena), but nothing quite lights George up like the memory of his soulmate, who’s played in flashbacks by Matthew Goode.
In fact, Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau take that lighting up very literally, setting it off as a periodic efflorescence from their meticulously pallid status quo. As if Firth’s face, here a marvel of emotive subtlety and control, somehow weren’t enough to get the point across. That’s really the best and most confounding thing going on in here: an extraordinary central performance without which the whole movie, flan-like confection that it is, might completely collapse. It’s astonishing to see how nimbly Firth navigates the simultaneous numbness and volatility that mourning can bring. And it’s frustrating to see him, along with every other shrewdly self-possessed performer in his supporting cast, not so much directed as tastefully arranged within the frame.
Given the milieu of a hazy, uneasy neverland somewhere between conservative cultural nostalgia and foundational progressive mythology, it’s no surprise that Ford should want to reduce all of “A Single Man”’s feeling to a languid fashion-mag swoon. (Is that moment set in front of a billboard for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” actually meaningful, or just something the filmmaker saw in another movie once?) But his characterization of the dapper, depressive George risks reinforcing a mopey and preening stereotype — the core of queer vanity behind a veil of hollow flair — that Isherwood sought preemptively to peel away. Funny, and sad, how times have changed.