On the surface, A Single Man can register as an exquisitely constructed mood piece, too mannered and perfect for its own good. Fashion designer and former Gucci creative director Tom Ford’s debut film centers on a gay man in 1962 Los Angeles who is contending with a profound loss. As he goes about the course of his day, English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) reflects on his partner Jim (Matthew Goode, glimpsed in flashback), who has recently died in a car accident. It is a momentous loss, and it has driven George to an existential dead-end.

But A Single Man, from a 1964 novel by gay author Christopher Isherwood, is a stealth, carefully paced film whose emotional wallop is cumulative. The film goes about its business, the details of George’s life stack up, and then suddenly, almost out of the blue, the weight of the thing crashes down on you. Hard.

Firth is exquisitely understated as a man who brings the loss of a loved one into the realm of the universal. Perhaps it’s why directors (even ones like Ford, an uncloseted gay man) seem so determined to have straight men play gay in film. They appeal to the middle-ground. Like Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man reaches across divisions of sexual orientation to beckon with its sorrowful rendition of what love and grief feel like from either side of the coin. George’s heartbreak, however, is made more poignant by its inexpressibility. In 1962, he is for the most part closeted and so wears his pain close to his chest. As is so often the case in period pictures, the repression of feelings is its own prison and recalls the similar restraint of Douglas Sirk melodramas.

Naturally, style reigns supreme in Ford’s effort. A Single Man is a film nearly woozy with the fragile loveliness of life, but equally exacting in its rendition of physical beauty: George’s modern home, perfect suits, and carefully composed life. The breadth of Ford’s influences loom large in A Single Man. Ford is addicted to pretty and brings a designer’s attention to minute visual details that some have called superficial. But it is not necessarily the kind of film — drenched in sadness about mortality, loss, and the fleeting nature of youth and beauty — you’d expect to emerge from the world of fashion and style.

Over the course of his day, George is set upon by a succession of shocking beauties who call him back from the precipice. There is the whippet-thin college student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) in his literature class with snow white teeth and aquamarine eyes who senses something tragic in George and begins to trail him like a nervous puppy. Outside a liquor store, George is set upon by a sultry Italian James Dean lookalike (John Kortajarena) who offers to come home with him. And then there is George’s neighbor, a seductive, boozy redhead Charley (Julianne Moore), a fellow Brit who has mooned over George for years. Charley sees George’s lover’s death as a chance to have the man she’s always wanted.

But even the juiciest morsel appears unable to pull George out of his fatalistic self-destruction. George exists in a kind of fog, immune to the charms of the world outside. A Single Man conveys the life-in-a-fishbowl sensation that the cottony tomb of grief can bring. George surveys the world: a dishy receptionist at the college where he works, a little neighbor girl dressed in a crisp summer dress by the roadside, with a special hyper-awareness. A Single Man can be a remarkably dispassionate and detached film in which people fail to connect. Until they do. More than anything, the film is about the quicksilver moments of beauty and grace in our lives that allow us to rise above the truth of our own mortality.

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