In Theaters: A Single Man
They say that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, and for A Single Man's George Falconer (Colin Firth), you could take that even further: Life is what happens to George when he's making plans to die. He's been inhabiting a literally gray world since the passing of his longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode), and as he begins to plot his own suicide, he's suddenly struck by reasons to go on. Some of the things that trigger his lust for life are major, like an emotional reconnection with his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) or a potential new romance with his student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). Some others are small, like the scent of a secretary's perfume or an infectious smile. To the detail-oriented George -- and to fashion icon Tom Ford, making his writer/director debut here -- they all make an impression, and lucky for us, so does the film.
There's no denying the look of A Single Man -- outside of a special-effects-soaked spectacle like Avatar, this impeccably glamorous period piece is just about the most dazzling visual experience of the year. It's no empty magazine spread, either: The attention to detail serves both the fastidious George and the movie itself. What George says leaves so much unsaid, but what he sees says everything. Closeted in 1962 Los Angeles, he gives a veiled lecture to his class about persecuted minorities, but he's far more outgoing about how he wants a tie knotted (Windsor, of course). Forced to repress himself, he's found style to be his primary mode of communication; it's no coincidence that when he and a Spanish hustler (Ford's model muse Jon Kortajarena) meet in a parking lot, each subtly cruising the other in his own way, an expressive poster of Janet Leigh from Psycho looms behind them. It's an objet d'art that communicates when they can't.
To go on about the film's technical aspects would surely befit Ford's ace crew of cinematographer Eduard Grau, production designer Dan Bishop, and costume designer Arianne Phillips, but it wouldn't do justice to A Single Man's most compelling aspect: the actors. Firth's exceptional ability within a narrow range has been celebrated before -- hell, the Bridget Jones films seized on the literary character's fixation on Firth and cast the actor as her onscreen love interest -- but he's never had a showcase like this one. When we see things through Firth's eyes (and we do often, as Ford indulges in quite a few shots from George's POV), sometimes the image will go from gray to heavily saturated, the color pumped in like an infusion of blood. That risky stylistic conceit wouldn't work without the incredible Firth as the film's beating heart.
Where will Ford go from here? I don't know, but I'm interested to find out. A Single Man works so well because it's the perfect wedding between its men and its material, drawing the things we might expect out of Ford and Firth, then going even deeper. In look and theme, it may owe a great deal to Wong Kar-Wai or late-period Almodovar, but at the same time, it's quintessential to who Ford is. A Single Man is his singular achievement.