Sometimes in movies a heartbroken love story can come together with one exquisite detail: a woman’s hand slowly being loosened from a lacey glove in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence; a head resting on a shoulder in In the Mood for Love. Any film that hopes to map the sinuous contours of a past romance can be helped along by one of these smoldering moments, in which love is a delicate rare bird and reality splits off into an instant memory of itself. In Tom Ford’s A Single Man—which, like my previous examples, is a painstakingly aestheticized period piece that situates eros within a persistent longing for lost time—this scene arrives early. George (Colin Firth), a middle-aged British expatriate teaching at a small Southern Californian college in the 1960s, receives a phone call in his living room on a leisurely night alone. It becomes clear that the call is about Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of sixteen years who, in the film’s opening dream sequence, is seen lying dead in a snowy landscape after a car crash. George’s response to the bad news is disarmingly elegant: while clearly flustered, he also maintains the steadiness of his voice so as not to impose his distress on the deliverer of the message. We grow curious to see how much pain will crack through Firth’s stereotypical poker-faced Englishness. Then, as if on cue, a sliver of water moistens the bottom of each eye. Only when the phone has returned to its cradle do two perfectly round tears come traveling down George’s otherwise minimally expressive face.
If there has been a more beautiful piece of Oscar-hungry melodramatic acting this year, or a more welcome expansion of a movie star’s previously constricted persona, I haven’t seen it. And yet the almost mathematical control and precision of Firth’s lachrymal glands points to what proves to be most problematic about A Single Man, particularly when considering it alongside the poignant but harder edged 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel on which it is based. Click here to read the rest of Andrew Chan’s review of A Single Man.