A Single Man (The Weinstein Company, R)

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a-single-man.jpgIt's a film oddly devoid of tension -- will he or won't he is the last thing Ford is concerned with -- but is almost overwhelmingly painful to watch as it communicates the terrible grief of a man who lost his partner of 16 years and must keep his mourning, as he kept the relationship, secret.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a British expat teaching at a college in Santa Monica. He lives in a stunning California Modern home, dresses impeccably, enjoys the company of his glamorous neighbor Charley (Julianne Moore), and is planning to kill himself.

I'm not giving anything away here because director Tom Ford plants numerous clues to George's plans beginning with the film's first scenes: He buys bullets for a revolver, lays out the clothes he wishes to be buried in, retrieves his mother's wedding ring from the safe deposit box, and even rehearses his suicide to minimize the mess his housekeeper will have to clean up.

A Single Man, adapted by Ford and David Scearce from Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name, follows George through a single day -- the day that George intends to be the last of his life. It's a film oddly devoid of tension -- will he or won't he is the last thing Ford is concerned with -- but is almost overwhelmingly painful to watch as it communicates the terrible grief of a man who lost his partner of 16 years and must keep his mourning, as he kept the relationship, secret.

That's because the year is 1962 and officially gay people don't exist, except as the subject of witch hunts and tabloid news items about illicit activities in public bathrooms. So while George and Jim (Matthew Goode) were life partners who created a home together (for more years than many marriages last, George reminds us), when Jim is killed in a traffic accident George can't even attend the funeral because he's not considered family. Even his best friend Charley, with the casual obliviousness of a member of the majority culture, tells George that his relationship with Jim was not "real" but only "a substitute for something else."

A Single Man is one of the more subjective films of recent years and Ford's approach borders on mannerism, sometimes seeming more like a high-end advertisement for cologne than a feature film. But the film's fastidious attention to detail is true to George's character while the subjective camera reflects Ford's attempt to let us into George's world. It's not surprising that we see the past as filtered through George's memory (communicated through exquisitely precise black and white photography), but in this film we also see the present time through the lens of his shifting mental states.

George experiences his life as a collection of fragments which jump from pale, washed-out hues to vibrant color according to his immediate mood and state of mind. Often there is no dialogue, just sound -- rain when George informs Charley of Jim's death, tacky music when George contemplates his unspeakably suburban neighbors -- which heightens the effectiveness of those scenes by letting the visuals carry the story.

With A Single Man, Tom Ford, former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, proves that he can use the medium of film to create a story both beautiful and heartfelt. The technical elements lend strong support, including cinematography by Eduard Grau, production design by Dan Bishop, art decoration by Ian Phillips, set decoration by Amy Wells, and costume design by Arianne Phillips.

But the film's real revelation is Colin Firth, a versatile actor who always seems to be working (in everything from Pride and Prejudice to Mamma Mia!) but never before in so demanding a role. His character in A Single Man plumbs the depths of grief in private (the scene in which he receives the news of Jim's death is a study in conveying much by doing little), and even behind the façade of his public persona which constantly reminds us of the pain lurking just beneath the surface. Julianne Moore is very good in a minor role which seems designed to make her look ridiculous; Matthew Goode radiates youthful beauty in his necessarily limited appearances as Jim; while Nicholas Hoult displays great charm and humanity in the role of Kenny, one of George's students and perhaps his savior. | Sarah Boslaugh

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