Prior to A Single Man, Tom Ford had exactly one screen credit to his name, as tailor for the last James Bond picture, Quantum of Solace. In light of that, it's downright stunning that his debut effort as director, co-writer, and co-producer is so smashingly assured; it's one of the most confident film debuts I've ever seen. Ford's background, and fame, is in the world of fashion--so, unsurprisingly, the film looks great (more on that presently). But it's not just an empty magazine lay-out; there's real, palpable emotion to it, and that is Ford's greatest success.
It is the story of a day in the life of George (Colin Firth), a well-liked English professor. It is November, 1962. George is gay, and Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, was recently killed in a tragic car accident. George hasn't coped well; "for the last eight months, waking up has actually hurt," he tells us, in voice-over narration. George is tired of hurting. At the beginning of the day, he produced a handgun from his desk. He has decided that today is the day that he will end his life.
George doesn't over-analyze his decision for us, and neither does the film; indeed, the narration is used briefly at the beginning and end of the story, but his plan and his pain are mostly assembled by the viewer. Jim is glimpsed in flashback scenes and dreams, a symbol of an idyllic existence that George feels he will never experience again. He is given some comfort by Charley (Julianne Moore), an old friend; she was once his lover, before he could admit who he was, and he now finds himself drawn back toward her, if only for the familiarity and ease of her company. Other glimmers of life come into George's orbit, like a handsome young student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up from About a Boy) who seems to read between the lines of George's classroom diatribe about "invisible minorities." But he cannot see past his own misery and loss.
In the scenes with Hoult, and in George's encounter with a handsome Spaniard (Jon Kortajarena), there is a visceral, sensuous quality to Ford's direction; he makes deliberate use of color and contrast, placing his protagonist in a stark, washed-out world into which step flashes of warmth and color (warmth which, at one key moment, overcomes his pallor). The design of the picture is immaculate--it's one of the best looking movies in recent memory--full of elegant tableaux and haunting images (I can't shake the overhead shot of George's desk, meticulously prepared with all the keys and documents that will be needed after his body is discovered). But it's not all cold and staged; there's a warmth to the film (particularly in the flashbacks), and honest pain. And Ford knows when to let the elegance go, as in a wonderfully off-the-cuff scene where old friends George and Charley dance to Booker T. & the M.G.s (it's got the jangly feel of early Godard).
He also gets a career-best performance out of Firth, a gifted actor who has made something of a career of playing uptight, repressed, and apologetic. It's not a 180-degree turn from that persona--George is all of those things, but he's more, much more, and the screenplay (by Ford and David Scearce) provides the character with significant shadings and dimensions. The flashback to the phone call from Jim's cousin (voiced by an uncredited John Hamm), bearing bad news, is a stunning piece of acting by Firth--and a restrained, sympathetic act of filmmaking by Ford.
A Single Man is somewhat slight; it's a small, delicate movie, but that's exactly as it should be. The slice-of-life approach gives it a lightness, a delicacy; you don't feel the plot gears grinding, and in spite of the meandering nature of the storytelling, it feels shorter than its 100 minutes. But it is a real achievement, and announces its neophyte director as a filmmaker of tremendous skill and control.