Directed by former Gucci creative director Tom Ford, “A Single Man” has a few of the qualities you’d expect from a fashion designer’s first film. On a superficial level, nearly every frame is highly styled to the point where it would not seem out of place printed in Italian Vogue (it may be too visually esoteric for the North American edition), but style is also a deeper theme. From an early voiceover explaining fashion’s function as armor, continuing through conversations about one character’s James Dean-esque haircut and another’s new beehive, culminating in another’s written instructions about how he wants his tie to be tied for his burial, Ford goes out of his way to explore the role that personal style plays in the expression and definition of identity. It would be tempting to write off “A Single Man” as a triumph of surface if there was nothing else to recommend it, but like “Mad Men,” its cultural cousin in finely designed early-60s ennui, Ford’s project spins on witty writing and a couple of performances strong enough to give the beauty depth.
Beginning with a startlingly gorgeous dream sequence in which Colin Firth’s impeccably-suited George lies down in the snow to give his dead lover Jim (Matthew Goode) a kiss goodbye, “A Single Man” then jumps to a single day (Friday, November 30, 1962 to be precise) in George’s life without Jim. A silver-streaked English professor living in a Neutra-style glass house in Los Angeles, George goes through this day as we are to understand he’s gone through most in the eight months since the car accident that killed his companion of 16 years: in a contemplative daze, going through the motions at work and at dinner with his needy long time bestie Charlie (Julianne Moore), all the while drifting uncontrollably into painful reminiscences of his lost love. Except on this day, he packs a revolver next to the Huxley novel in his valise, and in between teaching class and falling intp long conversations with Charlie, a Spanish hustler and cute, unusually curious student, George makes arrangements for his own demise.
In his boldest visual choice, Ford manipulates the film’s palette to match the evolving emotional tone. George’s flashbacks are generally crayon-colored and his present desaturated and neutral, but in fleeting moments of pleasure –– a flirtation, a run-in with a precociously honest child, an opportunity to appreciate a sunset or a well-bred dog or any thing of pure beauty –– the color drains back into the image to various degrees. At first this flourish is almost imperceptible but appreciated for its sensory pleasures; eventually, once you become able to anticipate the turn of the color dials, the technique feels a bit on-the-nose. The direction of the film’s final scene is similarly overbearingly in hammering home the point that we can control this moment but not the next. A Single Man works best when Ford the stylist sets up a scene and then steps back, allowing Firth and the supporting cast to fall into natural-feeling rhythms of conversation. Firth’s Best Actor prize in Venice was well-deserved; still probably best known in the States as Bridget Jones’ boring boyfriend, his work here is worthy of Oscar attention.
Though some viewers have apparently branded it as “too gay” for a general audience, “A Single Man” is actually rather chaste; there is male nudity and kissing, but no explicit sexual imagery. “A Single Man”’s more limiting virtue than its sexual politics would seem to be its obstinate artiness; viewers who are totally cool with the gay themes still may be turned off by an 105 minute hybrid of moving painting and perfume commercial. Underneath the visual indulgence, the core subject of “A Single Man” is the struggle to wait out a life that no longer seems worth living, and anyone gay or straight who has lost someone loved should be able to latch on to that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.