Yes, that Tom Ford, the longtime creative director for Gucci and a revered fashion designer in his own right. Dipping his virgin toes into the murky pool of moviemaking, and choosing as his material the book that Edmund White described as “the first truly liberated gay novel in English,” is a huge step, but the resulting product, A Single Man, is a stylized, visually stunning feast owing as much to Look fashion spreads from the Camelot era as it does to any serious study of filmmaking. Ford does channel Pedro Almodovar, notably in a scene in which the title character, George (Colin Firth), has a conversation with a young hustler (Jon Kortajarena) posed against a backdrop of a billboard-sized ad for the movie Psycho. Janet Leigh’s bulging eyes, her mouth frozen in a silent scream, tinge an already sexually fraught proposition. While it may not be overly subtle, it’s a nice touch.
We first encounter George floating—or is he flailing?—in water the color of green marble. Then he’s a silent figure intruding upon a hoary landscape, in which a man and a dog lay dead in a pool of crimson blood. George bends over to tenderly kiss the dead man’s lips, whereupon we flash forward to now (well, 1962), and he’s waking in a cold sweat, a sense of panic enveloping him as he realizes that he must “get through the goddamn day.” An efficient and thorough toilette, a crisp breakfast, and then . . . nothing, as he contemplates the minute hand of the clock, in preparation of going to his job as a college literature instructor. George’s near inability to focus on the task at hand is contrasted with sunny flashbacks to his relationship with Jim (the guy in the snow), scenes that Ford presents as one-dimensionally idyllic. He contrasts such over-the-top joy with a brilliantly photographed scene in which George, driving past the neighbors in slow motion, notices the cracks beneath the surface of domestic contentment. The wife (Ginnifer Goodwin), smilingly cajoles her tribe of kids until, interrupted by a clearly disdainful and disapproving hubby in a gray flannel suit, her smiles melt into anguish.
That George is heartbroken, that he’s a gay man closeted in 1960s suburbia and academia, are the foundation of A Single Man, and from this foundation, Firth delivers a supremely nuanced performance. Long known for his dashing portrayal as Mr. Darcy, and more recently as the dreamy Brit of so many chick flicks, Firth here is grave and profoundly damaged. A scene in which Jim’s cousin surreptitiously calls George to let him know what has happened conveys more than Jim’s family’s sense of shame; Firth, just sitting in an armchair with a phone to his ear, lets his face measure his shock, horror, desperation and loss. It’s just a few minutes of screen time, and it’s one of the most devastating scenes I’ve seen this past year. Later in the movie, when George chats with a college student (Nicholas Hoult) who may or may not be coming on to him, he seems to almost lose some of the weight of loss that’s been bearing on him, and we get a slightly looser man.
Firth’s performance is one of too few gifts, however, as A Single Man hovers outside the realm of meaty storytelling, preferring instead to arrange its characters in pitch-perfect Jackie Kennedy dresses and gleaming modern interiors. Julianne Moore, playing George’s longtime friend and sometime lover Charlie, nails the style, and shares with George a sense of not belonging in a world dominated by “traditional” couples, but she’s more of a gimmick, a respected actress taking on a minor role to add prestige and box-office pizzazz.
And yet, nothing much happens. Clearly, George has serious business on his mind, but Ford is unable as director to focus on the character’s inner battle, his longing for lost love and his understandable need to close himself off, in more ways than one, from the rest of the world. Because of this, the ending, while true to the book, is, strangely, a complete anticlimax. Again, Ford is new to this game, and while he needs to learn a whole lot about pacing and integrating characters with their backgrounds, he wisely lets Firth do his own thing, and that alone makes this a must-see.