It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the characters in internationally celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man, are costumed impeccably, but it is surprising to see how assuredly he expresses their inner lives as well.
George Falconer (Colin Firth) feels lost. Not only is he still grieving the death of his longtime companion, Jim (Matthew Goode), but he's also a Brit teaching English at a California college. He's so distraught with heartbreak that he's decided to kill himself, and proceeds to get all his affairs in order while carrying on with what otherwise would be a normal day. He gives an unusually forceful lecture to his class, revealing enough that a perceptive student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), senses something is wrong with the professor; collects his important financial papers from his bank; buys bullets for a handgun he owns; and makes a visit to his best friend (Julianne Moore). But throughout these methodical preparations, George keeps running into people -- a colleague's daughter, a attractive gay hustler, and the sympathetic Kenny -- who offer him glimpses of why he should stay alive.
Ford -- with co-screenwriter David Scearce -- has fashioned a remarkably good screenplay from Christopher Isherwood's novel. George is the kind of man who's very comfortable with himself, but very uncomfortable at how others will react to him -- he has an understanding that some people will never accept him because of his sexuality. His inherent Britishness makes it easy for him to hide his pain from his associates, and Colin Firth inhabits the role with formidable grace and ease. It's pretty much impossible to believably play a clinically depressed character and make him charismatic at the same time, but Firth does it. Our hero isn't charismatic in the regular sense, but Firth expresses his intensity, intelligence, and deeply felt love for Jim with such naked honesty that it's impossible not to care for George -- to genuinely fear that he will choose death over life.
Firth dominates the film, but he's far from the only actor who gets to shine. Moore has what amounts to an extended cameo, but her typical excellence shines through as Charley -- George's boozy best friend and onetime lover. Jon Kortajarena impresses as Carlos, a young hottie George flirts with while buying gin, and with a minimum of screen time, Matthew Goode makes us understand why George would be so devoted to Jim.
Ford deserves much credit for the script, but his directorial instincts, while ambitious, don't necessarily serve the material. He overdirects, occasionally fading from color to black-and-white and back again during a single shot, and using vastly different lighting on characters that are in the same scene with each other. He's obviously good with the actors -- or, at the very least, smart enough to hire exceptionally talented performers and get out of their way -- but he pushes too hard on the visuals, something that afflicts many first-time directors, and something all the good ones outgrow.
A Single Man offers evidence that Ford has a career in movies if he wants it, but it's most memorable for giving the criminally underappreciated Colin Firth the chance to reassert himself as one of the most talented actors of his generation.