"A Single Man" easily could have been one of those style-over-substance visual dazzlers, coming as it does from Tom Ford, the fashion designer who revived the house of Gucci.
Yet with Colin Firth delivering a career performance that's pure elegance and heartache and Julianne Moore providing graceful support, "A Single Man" works as engaging drama as well as the sumptuous collection of images you'd expect from first-time director Ford.
Adapted by Ford and co-writer David Scearce from a Christopher Isherwood novel, "A Single Man" gorgeously recreates 1960s design and decor, the production values so showy they could have overwhelmed this quiet story of a gay academic lamenting the death of his longtime lover.
On-screen, virtually the entire film, often alone with only the bottomless grief on his face driving the scene, Firth is riveting, the vibrant charm of his work in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and other frothy romances easily co-existing with his character's melancholy.
It's a tragic but simple story, Firth's George Falconer, a British professor of English at a Los Angeles campus, going about what he intends to be the last day of his life, with the peril of the Cuban missile crisis playing out in the background.
Through flashbacks, we relive tender moments of his home life with Jim (Matthew Goode) and the awful day when George got word that his companion had died in a car wreck.
As George passionately lectures students, has a close encounter of potential romance with a stranger and shares witty phone chatter over preparations for an evening with dear friend Charley (Moore), it becomes clear that he plans to kill himself at day's end, no longer able to go on without Jim.
The drama is heightened by repeated encounters with a bright-eyed student (Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Grant's child co-star in "About a Boy," all grown up now and delivering an earnest performance as an admirer, perhaps stalker, of George).
Firth and Moore capture a great sense of familiarity and fraternity in George and Charley's friendship — the sort of relationship that can erupt from boozy good humor to fierce reproach and back again without any permanent damage.
The detail Ford applies to the production design is a marvel. Big-finned cars, narrow ties, thick eyeglass rims, stiffly sculpted hair, exquisite dresses for a casual evening at home, it all evokes a beauteous world that's maybe too idealized to have ever really existed but is just a treat to look at.
The house of glass walls that George shared with Jim provides a grand window into a grieving man's soul. What once was a haven for George now is a wound torn open for anyone who wants to peer inside.
George's meticulous arrangements for his suicide and its aftermath — the plans ranging right down to laying out his burial suit — were not part of Isherwood's novel. Ford added the suicide element, which strengthens the cinematic tension and even adds a dash of macabre humor as George experiments with the best angles at which to hold the gun that will blow his head off.
But George's intent to end his own life winds up undermining the film's finale, bringing rather coarse, even bludgeoning irony to the man's fate.
It's a dissatisfying conclusion to an otherwise involving day in the life played to perfection by Firth.
"A Single Man," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content. Running time: 99 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.
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