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A Single Man

An Engaging, Engrossing Character Study

Rating 4 out of 5 stars.

Tom Ford is best known for a long, successful career as a fashion designer. After A Single Man, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, he’ll be known as a filmmaker.

Ford unsurprisingly brings a well-developed visual style to A Single Man, but he also brings a surprisingly nuanced approach to performance, eliciting a career-best performance from Colin Firth as the “single man” of the title. Since A Single Man’s debut at the Venice International Film Festival in early September, talk has swirled about Academy Award nominations for Firth (practically a given), Julianne Moore (highly likely), Ford (for adapting and directing), and maybe even a Best Picture nomination. All would be well deserved.

Adapting Isherwood’s novel couldn’t have been an easy task for Ford and his co-screenwriter, David Scearce, but they make it seem effortless. Isherwood used first person and interior monologue to depict a single, if eventful, day in the life of George Falconer (Firth), an English professor at a Los Angeles college deep into mourning the loss of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), in an automobile accident. A grief-stricken, heavy-hearted George wakes to another day inside a glass-and-wood house, presumably designed by Jim, an architect. Memories of their time together rush back as he shaves and dresses. The phone rings repeatedly, his longtime friend and onetime lover, Charley (Julianne Moore) is at the other end, but he doesn’t answer.

In class, a discussion of Aldous Huxley ventures into an oblique disquisition on fear and minorities. One student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), intrigued by the subtext in Falconer’s commentary, pursues him outside the classroom, but Falconer responds just as obliquely. In the afternoon, George crosses paths with his neighbor, Mrs. Strunk (Ginnifer Goodwin), and her young daughter. Both mother and daughter are aware of his not-so-secret life as a gay man. An encounter with a hustler, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), briefly spins A Single Man in a different direction, but circles back to a long-planned dinner party with Charley, and always, memories and visions of Jim and their time together.

With the exception of one ill-judged scene — a flashback shot in high-contrast black-and-white that will instantly remind audiences of Calvin Klein ads — Ford keeps visual excesses in check. Ford creates a convincing simulacrum of early1960s Los Angeles — at least the Los Angeles that exists in films and magazines from that era. Cars, clothes, hair, etc., are all impeccably recreated, but Ford uses that recreation as counterpoint, to contrast the world’s external order with Falconer’s internal disorder. He goes further, externalizing Falconer’s inner life — a difficult task, even for an experienced filmmaker — through the use of hyper-real color for flashbacks, muted colors for the present, and other stylistic devices.

For all of Ford’s visual strengths, A Single Man is only as good as its leading actor, and in Colin Firth, Ford couldn’t have done better. If acting is reacting, then Colin Firth gives an award-worthy performance in A Single Man, expressing Falconer’s anguished inner life with remarkable subtlety and nuance.

In a smaller role contrary to her prominence in the marketing for A Single Man, Julianne Moore gives another standout performance as the loudly desperate Charley. Nicholas Hoult, best known stateside for his role as the awkward preteen in About a Boy six years ago, balances his scenes with the older Falconer between admiration and attraction. Ultimately, however, A Single Man owes its success to Ford and Firth’s collaboration.