A Single Man ★★★★★

There’s a moment in Tom Ford’s 2009 debut A Single Man where George — the central protagonist, played brilliantly by Colin Firth — leans in through a strangers’s car window to kiss the head of a dog, and, as time slows down, he finds himself lost in the dog’s scent, his face nuzzled against the animal. George's world swells from desaturated normality into vivid colour as he remembers his deceased dogs to whom he never got the chance to say goodbye, and we can almost feel his heart break — his encounter with the dog is simultaneously a tragic reminder of his loss and a brief respite from his mourn-filled daily life, shadowed by the recent death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years.

For anyone who has ever loved and lost a dog, this particular scene is sure to dampen the eye, but it’s also one of many examples of just how powerful this film is; without any words required, we understand George completely. His grief, writ large throughout the film, weighs heavy in almost every scene, alleviated only in these moments of clarity in which Ford uses the muted-to-saturated visual motif to highlight the occasional pleasures George manages to derive from life: the dog, the innocence of his infant neighbour, the toned physiques of his college students, the romantic interest from Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). In one scene, after being interrupted during an almost comical suicide attempt, George reconnects with heterosexual-lover-turned-friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore), but her misjudged advances and modern taste in music drains the colour from his world — an unwanted reminder of the present.

Despite his near-constant mournful outlook on life, George never loses our sympathy. He is a deeply likeable character and possibly one of Colin Firth’s finest performances, free of any bumbling foolishness. That A Single Man is, to date, Ford’s only film is surprising: there’s a confidence, dexterity, and panache on display here that most first-time directors could never achieve, and it’s all handled with an incredible sense of humanity. These are complex characters with depth; the story is both tragic and beautiful.

It’s telling that George, too, is as concerned with aesthetics as the director: planning his suicide, he arranges his important possessions and paperwork on his desk with obsessive precision; the aesthetic beauty of potential new lovers pulls him against his own sense of loyalty; his comments on a co-worker’s beauty is another moment of absolute clarity. Ultimately, George is able to find joy in life and its senses, but sadly realises it just a little too late. A wonderful, heart-wrenching film.