Christopher Isherwood’s short 1964 novel ‘A Single Man’ is a superb choice for a concise, intimate film. Its events are few, its emotional power is cumulative. The book visits one day in the life of George, a gay British expat and middle-aged literature teacher in 1962 Los Angeles. We learn gradually that George lost his younger partner, Jim, in a car crash and discover much later that this is a significant day for George, a slow reveal that gives the text a random, quotidian quality.
Ford turns the book on its head so that we know both these things from the start. But other than that, the book’s interior nature and sense of wandering remain in Ford’s delicate, moving film. We follow George (Colin Firth) closely, often alone, from morning to night. We watch as he gives a lesson on Aldous Huxley and join him on a drunken evening at the home of his soulmate and compatriot, Charlotte (Julianne Moore). Later, we’re with him during a late-night flirtation with a pupil, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). And, in flashback, we see snapshots of his earlier, happier life with Jim (Matthew Goode).
As a director, Ford manages to exude both extreme confidence and first-time nerves. Only a beginner would decide that the best way to add structure to a near-perfect story is to insert a gun from almost the very first scene. But the control and precision with which Ford tells his story helps us to ignore this choice and still trust his vision, which falls off the screen with an intoxicating fluidity, helped by evocative editing of sound and image and an increasingly affecting score by Abel Korzeniowski. The film looks gorgeous. Young Spanish DoP Eduard Gran, a graduate of the National Film and Television School, shoots on an old 35mm stock that gives the images a soft precision. Almost all the film is colour, but the colours tell a story themselves: Ford manipulates the film’s brightness so that it glows and darkens depending on George’s mood. Rather than coming across as a gimmick, this serves the emotional ebb and flow of the book well and helps to turn the literary into the cinematic.
Maybe the film is too pristine. In this world, dust doesn’t land, paint doesn’t peel and grass doesn’t grow. George’s black-and-white suit-and-tie combo is too perfect and his house is a modernist dream. His partner was an architect, we’re told. His director is a fashion designer, we’re thinking.
But nothing distracts from the empathy and understanding we have for George, and on that the film must live or die. Firth’s portrayal of a man repressing his grief while being unable to repress his instinct for love and for life is excellent and moving, while Ford’s balancing of depth and surface is precarious but ultimately winning.