As fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man is slowly but surely gathering attention. The film is a somewhat loose adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name, following what is intended to be the last day in the life of George (Colin Firth) after the sudden death of his longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode). The day is November 30, 1962, and George, a middle-aged English professor in Los Angeles, seemingly has no reason to continue to live. It is a day to clean up his office, empty his safety deposit box, and, most importantly, buy bullets.
Ford takes various liberties with the source material, injecting it with dark humor. The woefully underused Lee Pace features in a memorable scene used to establish the threat of the Cuban missile crisis. Both comedy and tension build in a sequence where George fruitlessly struggles to find a position to shoot himself in that will not produce too much of a mess. Eventually wrapped in a sleeping bag, he is about to pull the trigger when his friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) calls to remind him that they are supposed to meet. It is a reminder of the absurdity of events that keeps him alive.
While the ever-reliable Firth delivers a subtle portrait of grief, Nicholas Hoult stands out as Kenny, one of George's students. Kenny is fascinated by his enigmatic professor and is determined to learn more about what he is like outside of the classroom. Hoult, most recently known for his role on British series Skins as a power-crazed teen sociopath, provides a contrasting youthfulness that is simultaneously innocent and world-weary; it may be inferred that he is intended to embody the same sort of lust for life that George remembers in Jim. The film reaches its climax when Kenny spontaneously asks George to take a swim in the ocean with him, providing a bizarre and violent sort of rebirth for the mourning man.
Like any designer, Ford focuses on the details. Cigarette smoke is exhaled in dense clouds, teeth look whiter against red lipstick, and eyelashes flutter with pre-Quant amounts of mascara. Particularly notable is a scene in which George sets aside the clothing he wishes to be buried in, including cuff links, leaving a note indicated that the necktie absolutely must be done up with a Windsor knot. On the opposite coast, it is more heavily stylized than Mad Men. Vivid colors burst and fade at key points in George's narrative, while a flashback to a trip to the beach with Jim is completely desaturated. Aesthetics seem to be a priority over emotion; while the cast clearly has excellent chemistry, including model Jon Kortajarena's first attempt at acting, the audience is constantly held at arm's length. Still, there is more than enough fulfillment for the eye, and it feels ungrateful to complain when the attention to detail is otherwise flawless.