The sartorial touches in A Single Man remind us that the director is Tom Ford whose name is synonymous with luxury fashion. Planning his suicide, George, played with heartbreaking restraint by Colin Firth, carefully lays out the clothes for his coffin, leaving a note: “Tie in a Windsor knot.” Yet Ford, the longtime creative director for Gucci, has more than shirts and ties on his mind in bringing to the screen Christopher Isherwood’s novel. At its core, this is a love story, but a love story set in the 1960s when minorities, called “invisible people,” by George, a college professor, included homosexuals. George cannot openly mourn the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his companion of 16 years. When he receives that tragic phone call and inquires about the funeral, he’s told, “Only family.” Even George’s best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) trivializes what he felt for Jim, wishing that she and George, who once slept together, could have the loving relationship that, she claims, has eluded both of them.
Both George and Charley are ex-pats, Brits who came to the United States and settled in Los Angeles seeking a better life. Charley’s past includes an ex-husband and two children she never sees, but the thought of moving back to London seems like failure to her. George teaches English at a small college, trying to explain to a bored class that, no, Huxley was not a Nazi. At one time, George may have enjoyed his students. In the aftermath of Jim’s death, however, he is going through the motions. Aside from Charley, no one knows about his loss, although one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), senses George’s aloneness and seeks to draw him out.
Ironically, the glass windows that dominate George’s home permit the occupants to look out, but the surrounding vegetation prevents others from looking in. His neighbors, the Strunks, are decades away from political correctness and keep their distance. Their daughter, Jennifer, played by an adorable Ryan Simpkins, asks George if he really “walks lightly in his loafers” the way her father says. Mrs. Strunk (Ginnifer Goodwin in a too-brief appearance) extends the obligatory invitation for drinks but seems relieved when George has other plans.
Through flashbacks, we learn how George and Jim met and see how they lived. Their relationship, characterized by affectionate moments and verbal teasing, was truly a love affair. George is serious and buttoned-up, while Jim takes a lighter view of life. (While George buries his nose in serious literature, Jim is reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s). They balance each other out and it’s no surprise that without Jim, George’s life begins to spin out of control.
Ford, known for brilliant casting in his fashion shows, has shown his talent for casting this film. Firth, far from his Mr. Darcy persona, is pitch perfect in portraying George as grief-stricken and paralyzed, unable to find anyone, outside of Charley, he can talk to about his loss. Although George’s student, Kenny, and a male prostitute provide him with opportunities for sex, he’s not ready for another relationship, a one-night stand or something more long term.
Adding to the tension is the time frame, radio announcements reminding us that the Soviets have missles in Cuba pointed at the U.S. Yet George’s grief seems to trivialize this world crisis. Death, no matter how it arrives, would seem a relief.