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The brilliant dinner scene with George (Colin Firth) and Charlotte (Julianne Moore) is like a mini-movie within Tom Ford’s A Single Man.

3 out of 4 stars


A Single Man

  • Directed by Tom Ford
  • Written by Tom Ford and David Scearce
  • Starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
  • Classification: PG

Colin Firth isn't the only reason to see A Single Man, but he's certainly the best. His eyes do all the work, dripping with profound world-weariness, yet with humour too, and empathy and anger and an intelligence so fierce that it's more foe than friend. What a superbly restrained but allusive performance. Better still, about halfway through, watch for his extended sequence with Julianne Moore. A tête-à-tête dinner scene, perhaps 10 minutes long, it's a screen-acting clinic put on by a matched set of pros at the top of their game, one of those rare occasions when dialogue and character and drama and talent combust into explosions that feel spontaneous and oh-so-real. Now that's action - truly, this single scene is a mini-movie onto itself.

As for the broader picture, the setting is Los Angeles in late 1962, with the Cuban missile crisis heating up, and the entire film follows a day in the life of George Falconer. More specifically, it follows the last day in the life of George Falconer, at least if his plan doesn't go awry. A fastidious fellow, impeccable in dress and manner, he's marked his calendar and made his peace - this is his date with suicide. Why? Quite simply, fate has robbed him of his male lover of the past 16 years, dead in a recent car accident. Since then, "waking up has actually hurt"; since then, his reflection in the bathroom mirror is "not so much a face as the expression of a predicament." It's a predicament he means to resolve at the business end of a loaded pistol.

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Yes, the conceit is fraught with maudlin dangers, and departs from the Christopher Isherwood novel that loosely inspired the script. But here's where Firth comes to the rescue, investing George's decision with a cold, clear logic. After all, this is a gay man - an expat Brit and English professor - who had widened his closet into a beautiful home, who had found both requited love and a happy marriage at a time when neither was remotely likely in the homosexual community. Then, in a single stroke, everything is gone, and he's back to being marginalized, denied (in a powerful flashback) even the chance to attend his partner's funeral.

So the final day unfolds, as George puts his affairs meticulously in order - teaching a last class, cleaning out his office, emptying a safety deposit box, leaving the requisite notes, including a little missive beside the tie that will accessorize the dark suit he intends to wear to his coffin. It reads: "Tie in a Windsor knot." Meanwhile, throughout the afternoon, thoughts of Jim (Matthew Goode) flood his mind, memories of their easy banter and their comfortable redoubt built against a disapproving world. We do get a keen idea of what he's lost.

The suspense would seem to lie in whether George actually goes through with the plan, but it's soon evident that director Tom Ford has other ideas. Instead, he's out to draw his protagonist back from the brink. Since Ford is a fashion designer by trade, his method is to surround George with a sense of re-emerging beauty. He gradually shifts the visual palette from muted grey to Technicolor; zooms in for vivid close-ups of an eye's fetching blue, its perfect lash; and, most enthusiastically, he introduces a roster of pretty boys - shirtless tennis players on campus, a gorgeous hustler lounging outside a liquor store, a fresh-faced and flirtatious student mature beyond his years.

Admittedly, this can feel contrived and artificial, as if we just wandered into a James Dean photo shoot for Brooks Brothers khakis. And that feeling only worsens when the appointment with the pistol morphs into farce - George is worried about leaving behind a bloody mess. Again, though, Firth redeems his director's mistakes, elevating the material even at its weakest. At its strongest, well, welcome to that dinner sequence.

Charlotte (Moore) is another expat adrift in Lalaland, and they've been lifelong friends - briefly, in their youth, more than friends. Apparently rich and oft- divorced, she's a theatrical creature in a still-conservative era, and her wit has a desperate crackle. When George rather hypocritically advises, "You're living in the past. You have to start thinking about the future," Charlotte's reply is a model of self-pitying candour: "Living in the past is my future." Their chatter is funny, touching, accusatory, and something else too: proof of how, even (especially) between sophisticated adults, conversation is a chameleon, prone to quicksilver shifts in tone from playful to rancorous to reflective and back again. Such a revelatory scene.

And, alas, such a suspect ending - a hunk of irony too lumpy to be swallowed. The climax makes A SingleMan seem slight, after a single man has done so much to give it heft. Then again, Colin Firth is enough. Every movie is a performance, but very seldom is a performance a movie.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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