Spoilers ahead for both book and film
A Single Man follows a day in the life of British college professor, George Falconer (Colin Firth), who is still in the throes of grief following the death of his beloved partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). He drifts through his day, disconnected from the world around him, despite the best efforts of his neighbours and his friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), who finds herself just as isolated as George and unable to understand his relationship with Jim in her yearning for a deeper connection. When George meets with one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), their relationship draws closer as George attempts to find some kind of peace.
Although I don't place too much importance on a film's fidelity to its source material's narrative, it's worth noting that A Single Man hues closely to Isherwood's novella, tightly weaving the events of George's day with little excess anywhere. It helps that Isherwood's tale is itself rather slim, just a mere 152 pages in length, but packs in an extraordinary amount of character examination in that time, to which Tom Ford and David Scearce's screenplay also adheres.
As with the opening of the novel, George's first scenes are all around his "becoming" - waking up in the morning and going through the routine that makes him himself. Everything is paralleled with how Jim would react, where Jim would be standing, how Jim would feel. George may be a single man now, but in his head, he's still tied to Jim in everything he does. Whilst the narration keeps bringing things back to Jim in the book, director Ford brings in flashbacks of their time together or has George see Jim in the corner of the house they shared as if nothing has changed. Jim is life to George, everything else is merely existence.
Ford frames his isolation in a very similar way to Isherwood's; by setting him apart from the rest of the world. He watches through windows or through fence panels, always observing and slowly starting to make an effort to re-engage with the world. There's a beautiful moment in which George walks through crowds on campus, going against everyone's direction and parting them down the middle. It's a simple, eloquent way of demonstrating that George goes against the grain, his unaccepted sexuality and inability to toe the American line of fear underpinning his status. When he does have those moments of observation and engagement, they take place in slow motion, further emphasising his detachment, wanting to get involved with everyone again, but never quite knows how.
I'm sure eyebrows were raised at the prospect of a fashion designer making his directorial debut in the world of film, but considering the themes of the book, in hindsight, he's a perfect choice. Much of Isherwood's descriptions rely on the surface levels of the world around George. He observes neighbours' houses, the way in which his particular suburb has changed and developed, what everyone is wearing, how they're wearing it. Even the faculty dining-room in which George eats his lunch is described in meticulous detail:
This room is an anti-restaurant. It is much too clean, with its chromium and plastic tables; much too tidy, with its brown metal wastebaskets for soiled paper napkins and used paper cups; and, in contrast to the vast human rattle of the students' dining-room, much too quiet. Its quietness is listless, embarrassed, selfconscious.
Isherwood's prose is crisp and clinical, a discerning eye capable of articulating the smallest details in a room to ensure the reader understands its exact relationship to George. The restaurant moment is one of many examples of George's interior voice declaring himself to be superior to those around him. He criticises most people, most things without particular discrimination and further establishes his disconnect from the world. Ford affords George a voiceover at both the beginning and the end of the film, the rest is communicated through Colin Firth's extraordinary performance.
It also helps that the film looks stunning, a combination of Ford's keen aesthetic eye, Eduard Grau's cinematography and the production design of Dan Bishop, who worked on a little show called Mad Men. There's not a hair out of place in the entire film and whilst it's lovely to look at, it's functioning in the same manner as Isherwood's analytical narration. It all comes back to interaction, or, in this case, the lack of it. The artifice allows everyone to portray themselves as emotionally together, beautiful people gliding through life without worrying about what's going on beneath the surface.
There's the dressing process that George goes through, Charlie putting on her make-up before George comes over. Both are deeply troubled characters, but refuse to engage with their respective emotional problems until they have to, their crisp appearances slowly decaying over the course of their time together. Even George's first suicide attempt is defined by his desire to not get any mess on his sheets, clambering into a sleeping bag before trying to shoot himself and then giving up because it's such a palaver.
The Cuban Missile Crisis looms in the background, but the reaction is to create more things (bomb shelters) rather than engage with that fear. Ford builds in a hilarious visual joke when one of George's colleagues (Lee Pace) boasts about the shelter and it cuts to him and his family, surrounded by breezeblocks and animals in a weird family portrait. It is moments like that in which Ford successfully recreates Isherwood's bleak, ironic sense of humour as well as his sense of observation.
Both film and book are fascinating character studies over a world's detachment as well as the beautiful moments in which two people find themselves together, focused through the experiences of one man. And, the horrible irony that life sometimes has; just as George is finally getting over Jim, deciding against suicide and returning to the world, he has a heart attack and dies. George, so close to reclaiming himself and "becoming," simply ceases to be.