Notwithstanding the perennial appeal of Goodbye to Berlin (in its Cabaret-ed incarnation at least), the work of Christopher Isherwood seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. While the author still has many devotees, as adaptation material Isherwood’s name can hardly be considered “bankable.” Which makes the fact that someone in Hollywood has seen fit to green-light an Isherwood adaptation a particularly pleasant surprise. Even more surprising is that the person responsible for the adaptation is Tom Ford, the Gucci guru, making his directorial debut with a film version of Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man. The results, which, it must said, feel like the opposite of a made-by-committee movie, are incredibly good.
Isherwood was inspired by a re-reading of Mrs Dalloway when writing A Single Man, and the influence shows. Like Woolf’s novel, the book (which is just 150 pages long) is a day-in-the-life/life-in-the-day narrative, following the protagonist from waking to sleeping. (And, possibly, beyond.) George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a middle-aged British professor of literature living in early 60s LA and grieving the death by car accident of his younger American lover Jim (Matthew Goode). The movie follows George through a day of “ordinary” encounters and incidents (some drawn from the novel, others created for the film). He observes his neighbours; gives a digressive lecture on Huxley; draws the attentions of a student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); contemplates suicide; converses with a Spanish hustler; has supper with fellow ex-pat - and old flame - Charley (a ripe Julianne Moore); meets Kenny again; and experiences at least one Woolfian epiphany. Mortality, memory, and the trials and joys of human contact are among the subjects of the work.
Initially, there seems to be an insecurity to Ford’s approach to the movie, and he appears to be throwing too many stylistic tricks into the mix. We get slow-mo; flashbacks; a black-and-white sequence; and all kinds of fussy business with colours and framing. (It's an eye-fetish movie.) But, increasingly, these effects come to form an integral part of A Single Man's appeal and impact, and a crucial component of its serious endeavour to convey George’s consciousness. In the early scenes we don’t just observe the character’s sense of set-apartness; we live through it with him. And if Ford’s California sometimes looks rather “unreal” … well, that’s exactly how this disorientated Englishman abroad might experience it. (It also seems at first that the movie is going to swamp us in over-explicit voice-over, but this device only briefly book-ends the film.)
The movie’s expressionistic approach to Isherwood’s slight story takes some getting used to, but it pays dividends ultimately. Ford - who co-wrote the adaptation - keeps things intimate, sensuous, flowing. He proves himself a great director of actors, too. Hoult is superb, pitching his performance perfectly between innocent curiosity and provocation, while Goode is natural and appealing in the flashback scenes. Moore - sporting a throatier version of the rather actressy clipped-Brit tones she used in An Ideal Husband (1999) and The End of the Affair (1999) - is a bit more problematic; her appearance feels like a “turn,” and she’s not helped by the fact that much of Charley’s back-story (except of course her “tragic” love for George) is cut. She makes an impression, though, and is particularly delightful when bopping to “Green Onions.”
But A Single Man is Colin Firth’s show, no doubt about it. Firth’s a confounding actor: miscast, or in inferior material, he can seem merely blank and bland. But when he’s right for a part - and he’s perfect for this one - you can’t envisage anyone else in the role. Physically, vocally, he’s captivating as George, delivering a finely modulated performance that captures every contradictory shade of the character: depression, defensiveness, desire for connection, all underpinned by deep grief. The early flashback scene in which he learns of Jim’s death is a quiet phenomenon, and the performance only deepens from there. He incarnates Isherwood’s description (retained in the movie) of a man who, when looking in the mirror, sees not "so much a face as the expression of a predicament.” It’s why the brief connections he establishes - with Charley, with Kenny, with the hustler, even - feel so touching and redemptive here.
Ford literalises (yet somehow softens) the novel’s ending. And there’s also something odd - and puritanical? - about the way the movie denies George his late orgasm, especially since an early scene anticipates it. But these are tiny complaints. A Single Man is wonderful, a sensitive and haunting movie in which visual pleasure and emotional insight gradually become synonymous.