In "A Single Man," George (Colin Firth, "A Christmas Carol"), a 52-year-old, gay college professor of English undone by grief at the loss of his beloved partner of 16 years, first-time writer/director Tom Ford elicits an emotionally stunning performance from Firth. He also evokes the look and feel of a repressed 1962 world that draws us all into the stifling darkness of society's imposed closet "? a metaphor with multiple significances here.
While the successful shift from one artistic expression to another isn't unheard of, it is unusual. Ford, whose fashion design skill revivified both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1990s, moves from the runway to the screen with amazing grace. His film is as elegant and sophisticated as one of his perfectly cut suits or beautifully shaped dresses. He is, in fact, a creative director of the film as surely as he was of the two fashion industry giants.
Artist Julian Schnabel presents a powerful precedent for this kind of artistic redirection to direction. His "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" are all superior films. Some hinted then that "Basquiat" was beginner's luck: artist making film about artist. Not so much, as it turned out. Some have hinted now that Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's story might be the same sort of thing: gay man making film about gay man. I'm betting not.
The beautiful look of this film "? as well as all of Schnabel's "? comes as no surprise, of course. Every visual element in "A Single Man" "? from costumes to George's (oh, irony) almost all-glass midcentury house to the cinematography"? is beautifully designed to contribute to the films' emotional punch. While Arianne Phillips is named as costume designer, Ford designed all of Firth's wardrobe "? and, FYI, that for Daniel Craig as 007 in "Quantum of Solace." In both films, clothes make the character.
If you recall the power of that little red coat weaving its way through the black and white of "Schindler's List," you'll have a hint of what Ford does to the visual look of his film. Eduard Grau is listed as cinematographer, but, again, Ford's hand is evident in the saturation and de-saturation of color to reflect emotional states, and to provide visual commentary on the film's key themes of lost love and the increase of grief created when a person is unable to express that corrosive emotion publicly "? unable to share it as part of the human process of controlling and easing it.
Some may find the visual statement of the film's design makes too obvious; however, the almost obsessive control of all we see onscreen is a brilliant reflection of all that George is experiencing and feeling. What holds him together is the design of his world, the ritual of putting on a face to meet the faces that he meets, as T.S. Eliot had it in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Ford knows and shows us that. Being in the closet is awful, but what comes out of the closet can be akin to spiritual in its connection to the order and beauty that impose structure on the chaos of emotion.
Of course, no film is solely about the visual. The script reflects both Isherwood's incisive, beautiful use of language and a believable, 1960s world of words, owing to the skill of both Ford and co-writer David Scearce.
The movie begins on the day George has decided will be the end of his life. It takes place primarily on that day, with multiple flashbacks.
Woven skillfully into the story are often exquisite glimpses of the evolution of his relationship with Jim and his family, as well as students, colleagues, neighbors and his closest friend, Charley (Julianne Moore, "Blindness"). While she is as colorful, sloppy and over-the-top as George is monochromatic, tidy and restrained, Charley works.
The two principals are well supported by Matthew Goode ("Leap Year") as Jim, the heartbreakingly charming lost love; Nicholas Hoult (TV's "Skins") as a student seeking affirmation of his own sexual identity; and other actors who shine in smaller parts, suggesting the importance of perfectly chosen accessories in film as well as high fashion. Spanish actor Jon Kortajarena as Carlos, who tempts George with the possibility of a casual sexual encounter, is particularly fine.
On a final note, Firth deserves an Oscar not only for this role, but for redeeming himself for the embarrassing gay turn as Harry in "Mamma Mia!" All is forgiven, for sure. "?Kathryn Jenson White