Christopher Isherwood published his novel about a middle-aged homosexual grieving for a lost lover, the frank depiction of gay desire scandalized some readers. In these more sophisticated and sentimental times, however, it's the blunt confrontation with mortality and loss that's taboo. Director Tom Ford ups the ante by introducing an element not in the original — a vintage Webley revolver. His Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth, in his best performance to date), a buttoned-up British import, isn't just sad, he's suicidal, and the story takes on an extra edge when it becomes clear that it might be the last 24 hours of a person's life.
Firth's oblique, mordant voiceover (drawn from the book) and cinematographer Eduard Grau's austere images take us through Falconer's typical day: waking up, dressing, greeting the neighbors, driving out to teach a mostly bored class of undergraduates. To this particular day, however, he adds laying out his funeral clothes and leaving a note. And intruding into the routine are torturous flashbacks to his lost, beloved Jim (Matthew Goode).
Despite himself, Falconer can't resist reaching out: his lecture deteriorates into a monologue about otherness and intolerance to which a comely student (Nicholas Hoult) responds with curiosity and compassion. And near the end, as he wrestles with his resolve, he responds to an invitation from Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his bibulous, blowzy friend from the old country, who wants to reprise better days and perhaps rekindle a long-dead flame.
For a first-time director, Ford shows masterful restraint with a loaded subject. He has a knack for the brief, trenchant detail — like a shot of a child who gazes in wonder at a butterfly and then crushes it. In the background the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, but Ford only suggests this general aura of doom, through snippets from newspapers and TV broadcasts. The focus is on the tormented beauty of Firth's face and his brave but faltering voice, perhaps his last companion in his descent into darkness.