A review of "A Single Man," a movie starring Colin Firth that will please your eye and touch your heart.

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What would it be like, the main character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel “A Single Man” wonders, if the dead could come back and visit the living? “At best, surely, it would be like the brief visit of an observer from another country who is permitted to peep in for a moment from the vast outdoors of his freedom and see, at a distance, through glass, this figure who sits solitary at the small table in the narrow room, eating his poached eggs humbly and dully, a prisoner for life.”

In Tom Ford’s lovely, tragic movie version of Isherwood’s book, Colin Firth plays that “prisoner for life” — a middle-age professor who lives in a glass house near the California coast, and is yet invisible. It is 1962 and he is gay; his lover Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode) has died, but he may not mourn. We see glimpses of the couple in happier times — laughing on the beach, lounging companionably side-by-side on a sofa (George reading Kafka, Jim reading Capote) — in comparison with George’s stark, lonely existence now. He goes quietly through the motions of his life; it’s as if he’s fading away.

The film (and the book) takes place over one day, not long after Jim’s death. (George was notified of the death — a car accident while Jim was visiting family — by phone, and not invited to the funeral.) It’s a mostly unremarkable day: He teaches his class, does some errands, talks to a neighbor, visits a friend, has an encounter with a handsome student.

But what’s remarkable is how Firth, with the smallest of gesture or nuance, lets us see this man’s heartbreak without ever letting it burst through his carefully controlled surface. Though he has flashes of anger, he’s always on guard; even with his close friend Charley (Julianne Moore, flawless), a quaveringly beautiful former party girl who’s sadly and hopelessly in love with him, he keeps a wall between them.

And it’s a surprise and a joy to see how Ford, well-known as a fashion designer, makes his first film such a thing of beauty. He makes unexpected, confident choices throughout: letting the color suddenly zoom to warmer shades, reflecting George’s perception (it’s a little jarring, but an interesting idea); showing us the striking image of Moore with one eye in full cat’s-eye makeup and the other bare; making the color of George’s simple black suit change depending on the hazy California light. “A Single Man,” one of the season’s best films, will both catch your eye and break your heart.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com