Fashion world titan Tom Ford switches gears with "A Single Man," co-writing and directing a tragic tale of love lost and (briefly) found. A '60s period piece, the velvety aesthetic challenge suits Ford's instincts; he rolls out an impossibly beautiful film adorned with the sort of ornate architecture, sumptuous photography, and set design detail that should have film fans salivating. Ford also displays a generous nature toward his cast, urging star Colin Firth to one of the best performances of his career.
George (Colin Firth) is desperate to get over the accidental death of his long-term lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, "Watchmen"), but finds the grief won't fade away. Planning his suicide, George goes about the plans needed to properly close out his life, looking to a last dinner with friend and neighbor Charlotte (Julianne Moore) as a final comfort. During his day job as an English professor, George is pursued by student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, "About a Boy"), an aggressive young man who senses George's loneliness and longing, and helps to restore a certain light to his dreary, empty existence.
For his directorial debut, Tom Ford has thrown a substantial amount of artistic weight behind "Single Man," assuming most of the front line duties in this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel. An admitted control freak and celebrated designer, Ford takes superb visual care of the film, communicating George's heartache as a dreamy Los Angeles funeral procession, planning his final hours in a land of cigarettes, suburban elegance, and burgeoning sexuality. Period details, from name brands to advertisements, are kindly fetishized, along with George's metaphorical glass home, which allows careful inspection of the neighborhood, also providing a subtle dare to outsiders who've come to judge George's homosexuality, a bravery brought on by Jim's love. "Single Man" is gorgeous from top to bottom, but I suppose it's to be expected from Ford, who's made a living making sure matters are as beautiful as humanly possible. Still, it's startling to find how evocative this feature truly is.
While the role of George plays to Firth's wheelhouse of British rigidity, the actor finds a uniquely tender pulse to express here. A man crippled by his grief, George has a plan to die with dignity, taking him out of a world that he perceives has little use for him, completely mummified by his sorrow. Firth captures that alienation with masterful precision, keeping George's outward appearance professional, but allowing Ford's camera to observe the cracks in his English veneer. Assisted by subtle color cues, Firth rocks back and forth between despair and arousal, with George finding hope in the day's various flirtations and the sexual energy emanating off of Kenny, who seems determined to acquire George -- a quest that delights the vulnerable appetite of the bereaved. Firth is a powerful force of gravitas in "Single Man," tenderly transmitting the suddenness of death and the suffocation of memories that remain.
Supporting cast members Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult are adequate in their respective roles, though Ford has them both attempting accents (Moore the American is doing a Brit routine, while Brit Hoult is attempting American) to increasingly ludicrous results. A convincing director, perhaps Ford's casting ideas aren't as finely honed as his visual instincts. Ginnifer Goodwin also appears briefly as George's neighbor, but her role seems part of a deleted subplot that briefly confuses the narrative.
George facing death, going about his business politely arranging his suicide, is the core of "Single Man," and its great source of dramatic nutrition. The plot provides Ford with a direct shot of sympathy to communicate and the execution is impeccable. Once the film falls under Kenny's spell, an adjustment period is permitted to the new inspiration, but the dramatic possibilities are frozen shut. George's pull back to the surface holds little magnitude, hobbling the film's leap for a poetic conclusion. It's a disappointing third act for "A Single Man," but it's a wound that doesn't last for very long. There's still so much cinematographic and thespian splendor to gorge on here; the anticlimactic finale barely dents the beguiling mood.