In A Single Man, his debut effort as film director, fashion designer Tom Ford seems determined to err not on the side of caution, but on that of aesthetic overload instead. Adapting Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel about a day in the life of a gay middle-aged professor mourning the recent death of his longtime lover, Ford concocts an unholy assemblage of blandly symbolic imagery, jarring cross-cuts between past and present, and disconnected close-ups of body parts, filling in the gaps with underwater footage, jump cuts, and an endless blast of hyperdramatic strings on the soundtrack. While some of this facile trickery seems designed to mirror the lead character's sense of dislocation, more often it seems like the inevitable recourse of a director determined to make a splash in his new medium and who thus mistakes the concept of telling a story visually with a near-disastrous aesthetic suffocation.
All of which is a shame, since underneath the glossed-up-within-an-inch-of-its-life surface, Ford has crafted an incisive film that plumbs the depth of a character forced to deal with both a crippling sense of loss and the restrictions of a society designed more for fear-mongering than comprehension of difference. As played by Colin Firth, whose smallest facial gesture is more expressive than all Ford's silly impressionism, Professor George Falconer is a sad-eyed misfit, a man who submerges his hurt beneath a veneer of dry sophistication and whose British accent and social reserve allow him a self-achieved isolation from his southern California community. A man of damning self-awareness, Falconer suffers from the strain of having to make himself up everyday into the part of "George," to play the role of the professor "educating" students not to think for themselves, while sublimating his homosexuality and suffering mightily from the recent car-accident loss of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, who frequently appears in flashback.
Waking up in the morning of the single day on which the film takes place, George decides that "today…will be different" and, in his classroom lecture, he breaks through the barriers of accepted discourse, explaining to a largely indifferent audience how the official fear of difference—whether in terms of "minorities" (on which Ford's camera picks out several potentially gay students in the audience) or communist threat (the film takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis)—is used as a governmental device to control its citizens. The lecture falls on mostly deaf ears, but sufficiently inspires one student (Nicholas Hoult) to track down the professor for further conversation.
Throughout the course of the day, George prepares for a suicide attempt he seems continually unable to go through with, dines with an old friend and (in his closeted days) former lover, Charlie (Juliane Moore), and ends by bringing the persistent student, who finds him at his regular bar, back to his place. Much of the film, at least when its director calms down and lets it, proceeds by conversation and Ford uses a series of three interactions to elicit a round of buried insights into his characters. In a flashback, George and Jim happily read together in their house, the exchange highlighting the obvious love between the two men as well as their differences in temperament when the easy-going Jim chides his lover for not being able to live in the moment. Over dinner, George and Charlie sympathize about the way their lives haven't worked out as expected. And finally, in the meeting with the student (set up as sexual tryst but never consummated), he tells the kid that the only moments of his life that have been worthwhile were when he genuinely connected with another person, a connection the brief instants shared between the inter-generational outsiders go some ways toward fulfilling.
But despite working with a strong screenplay (written by Ford and David Scearce), a talented cast of actors, and having an obvious feel for character interaction, the director just doesn't seem to trust his material. Which means that before we get anywhere near these exchanges, we're subjected to a series of aesthetic flourishes both eye-rolling in their banality and ultimately disrespectful of the characters' situations. For example, in the flashback in which George hears of Jim's death, Ford is initially restrained in his presentation, slowly tracking in on Firth as his eyes well up with tears. But then he betrays George's sadness by following up with a sequence in which the grieving man runs to Charlie's house for comfort, the sudden silence on the soundtrack and hyper-quick cutting serving not to memorialize George's sense of loss or suggest his dislocation so much as to subsume his plight in a bald display of bravura technique.
As the film progresses, Ford eases up on such displays, but there's still scarcely a scene in the film in which his intrusive directorial signature isn't felt, even if it's not generally as awful as the opening (and repeated) image of a naked male body floating fuzzily underwater. Still, by the time of George's final epiphany, his announcement of the onset of a rare instant of absolute clarity, the director's lack of aesthetic imagination proves fatal. The voiceover on the soundtrack may describe transcendence, a moment where the world seems suddenly fresh, but the best images Ford can come up with to illustrate this revelation are an owl flying away from a tree and the final, dreadful banality of a full moon filling the nighttime sky.