It is 1962. The film opens with a dream sequence in which George (Colin Firth) approaches the body of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) that is pinned beneath a car. It is snowing and everything is white with the exception of the blood flowing from Jim’s head. George bends down to kiss Jim and then wakes up with tears in his eyes. The camera zooms out and we see George alone in bed with papers strewn to one side and spilt ink all over his white sheets. He lifts a finger to his lips, smudging himself with ink, remembering the dream.
George wakes up and we see in montage his daily routine as he prepares for work. In voiceover, he explains that he was never a morning person, unlike Jim. For George, each new day is one day closer to “it” or death. It becomes clear that George is depressed because of Jim’s death 8 months ago and is barely able to keep himself together. At one point, he slumps briefly over a mantle, in pain. George explains that it takes him time in the morning to “become” the George that everyone expects. “Becoming” George involves showering, getting dressed, polishing his shoes and eating breakfast. George enters the kitchen to make toast and realizes that his housekeeper Alva has forgotten to take the bread out of the freezer again. He bangs the loaf on the counter in frustration and makes some coffee. George tells the audience that today will be different for him. It will be different because George is planning to kill himself that night and we see a small handgun in a desk drawer. George’s relationship with Jim is told in a series of flashbacks spaced throughout the film. In the first, we see George and Jim together buying their house in Los Angeles. Jim is an architect and has chosen a house made mostly of large glass panes. George grumbles that he isn’t ready to live in a glass house, but Jim convinces him. Jim refers to George as “Old Man” because Jim is significantly younger. Regardless, their relationship is loving and based on a mutual understanding.
Throughout the morning, we hear George’s phone ringing. At first, George is reluctant to answer and we learn why in a flashback to the evening when George learned of Jim’s death. George is reading at home when Jim’s cousin calls. Jim lost control of his car while visiting his family in Denver and has died. Jim’s parents did not want to call George and do not know that Jim’s cousin is informing him of Jim’s death. George’s voice remains calm but tears are streaming down his face. He asks about their two dogs and the cousin says that one died and that he has no news of the other (it is likely that Jim’s mother has kept the second dog). George says that he will make immediate plans to attend the funeral but Jim’s cousin tells him that the funeral is for family only. The conversation ends and George’s life with Jim is suddenly over. George runs crying to his friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house in the rain and we see her comforting him as he collapses on her doorstep. Back in the present, George is observing his neighbors from his bathroom. The mother is trying to control her bratty children who are playing with a metal detector. The husband steps outside on his way to work and is clearly grumpy. This heterosexual relationship contrasts dramatically with George and Jim’s partnership. The phone again interrupts George’s thoughts. He finally answers and it is Charley calling about dinner that night. George agrees and says that he will call her later from school. George gets into his car and drives to his job as a university English professor, passing by his neighbor’s bratty children playing on their lawn.
At the university, George is told by the department secretary that a student asked for his home address and that she gave it to him because he seemed so nice. George responds by telling her that she always looks so beautiful, young and fresh. On his way to class, George converses with a paranoid colleague who is building a bomb shelter in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While they speak, George watches some young shirtless men play tennis. He doesn’t take the threat of nuclear war seriously, viewing it as scaremongering. He teaches class, but ends his lecture by abandoning the assigned novel and discussing the concept of fear instead. George argues that fear is used to control people and ends the class a little early. Afterwards, he is met by a handsome student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who discusses his drug use and confesses his own feelings of alienation and who buys George a small yellow pencil sharpener. George refuses and is seen calling Charley again who asks him to buy her some gin. George prepares to leave by cleaning out his office and is seen pausing a moment before shutting the door, as though experiencing his workspace for the last time. He is met by Kenny in the parking lot who invites the professor out for a drink because he is worried about him. George refuses and goes to the liquor store instead.
On his way home, George buys some bullets for his gun and stops at the bank where he empties out his safe deposit box. We see insurance papers, his mother’s wedding ring that he puts on his pinky and a picture of Jim naked. The picture triggers another flashback and we see Jim and George together at a secluded local. Jim asks George about Charley and George confesses that he slept with Charley a long time ago back in London. Jim asks George why they are together and George replies that he falls in love with men and that he loves Jim. Jim says that he never was interested in sleeping with women and George replies that Jim has always seemed very self-assured. Back in the present, George withdraws a good deal of cash and encounters his neighbor’s daughter. She shows him her pet scorpion and says that her father wants to throw George into the scorpion’s home because he is light in his loafers, although it is clear that she doesn’t understand what her father means. George smiles wearily and her mother comes to chase her away. She invites George over for dinner and drinks, but George refuses politely. George then heads to the liquor store where he is picked up by a young man from Madrid. George ultimately rejects his advances, but gives the young man some money. The young man says that George is a nice man who just needs someone to love him sincerely. George also meets a woman in the parking lot who has the same kind of dog that he and Jim had. While petting the dog, George remembers a quiet evening at home with Jim and the dogs.
Back home, George is seen preparing for his suicide. He lays out his burial clothes, leaving a note about how to tie his necktie. We see him meticulously place life insurance and other papers and keys on his desk. He writes several notes to people, including Charley, and leaves a large sum of money for his housekeeper with the loaf of bread in the freezer. He then takes the handgun and tries to decide where to shoot himself. He lies on the bed and then tries the shower. Eventually, he unrolls a sleeping bag on his bed and zips himself up inside, but Charley calls before he can pull the trigger. He visits Charley, who is divorced and lonely. They eat dinner, drink and dance. Charley talks about going back to London and George says that her biggest problem is that she likes to feel sorry for herself. Eventually, Charley gets very drunk and clumsily hits on George, saying that Jim was just a substitute for a real relationship. George gets very upset and says that Jim was not a substitute for anything and asks Charley how her relationship with her terrible spouse was any more real. Charley apologizes, but George decides to go home.
Upon returning home, George remembers when he first met Jim, who was in the navy at the time. They met at a bar down the road from the house that was crowded, forcing them to stand outside. It begins to rain and they go inside together where a woman tries to pick up Jim. Jim looks at George, smiles and says that he’s already taken. Back in the present, George decides that he needs one last drink and ends up running to the same bar. As he leaves his house, we see that Kenny has been hiding on his front lawn and follows his professor to the bar. When George notices Kenny, he buys his student a drink and they connect over conversation. Kenny invites George to go swimming and they swim naked together in the ocean. George bumps his head and they go to George’s house where Kenny takes a shower and puts a band aid on George’s wound. They continue to talk and drink and it is clear that George doesn’t want Kenny to leave but is equally unsure as to how to proceed. George eventually passes out. When he wakes up, he finds Kenny asleep on the couch clutching the handgun. George smiles and locks the handgun back in the desk drawer. Outside, he sees an owl fly from a tree branch and decides to go back to bed. He sits on the end of his bed and feels a sudden pain in his arm. George collapses on the floor and we see Jim approach him, bend down and kiss him. As George dies, he tells the audience, “just like that it came.”
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