Most actors build their careers on expressing emotions. Colin Firth has become a star based on the artful suppression of feelings, wittily conveying that stiff-upper-lip struggle to contain impulses that eventually escape against his roles' better judgment. His ability to reveal the vulnerable spots in his emotional armor makes him a natural as remote-but-passionate leads in works such as "Pride and Prejudice." Firth gives a career-best performance in the drama A Single Man, but unfortunately the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel could just as easily be called A Simple Movie.
Firth plays George Falconer, an Englishman teaching college in Southern California in 1964, where he moves through life like a ghost impeccably dressed in a black suit, narrow tie, and huge framed glasses reminiscent of Michael Caine's. He maintains a state of mourning for his longtime companion Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashbacks). During such a closeted era, they couldn't go public as de facto spouses, so Jim must keep his grief to himself, with catharsis forever denied him. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Jim's unseen brother (voiced by Jon Hamm) breaks the tragic news to George on the phone, and sorrow seems to overwhelm Firth in the subtlest way imaginable.
A Single Man follows George through his daily routine as he contemplates whether life without Jim is worth living. George takes a little comfort in his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozing English divorcée with whom he once had a doomed fling. Moore plays Charley's neediness with such raw desperation; you can appreciate George's mixed feelings about their friendship. Meanwhile, About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult, not a boy anymore, plays a college student who hints at having a crush on George.
Directing his first feature, fashion designer Tom Ford crafts impeccably costumed and composed images that improve on "Mad Men" as evocations of Kennedy-era glossy magazine style. Unfortunately, the film looks so polished and fussed-over that it feels sterile, which seems only partially a reflection of George's mental state. Ford presents much of the film in washed out, muted colors, but when something rekindles George's interest in life, like a friendly dog or, more often, a lithe young body, the film stock switches to a rosy glow. The cinematography practically spoon-feeds the themes to the audience.
Sexuality, loneliness and depression can feed each other in complex ways, an idea also explored in the daring but fatuous art film Antichrist. Unfortunately, A Single Man spends so much time dwelling on full-lipped young guys (including slow-motion underwater skinny-dipping shots) that the film reduces George's interior life to near-trivial levels. It's like all he needs to do is get laid, and he'd get over his problems. Ford seems more interested in the film's tastefully appointed design than emotional nuances, so Firth's rich performance ultimately feels separated from the audience by a wall of bulletproof glass.