Fashion designer Tom Ford has impeccable taste. In the past, he has breathed new life into such brands as Gucci and Yves St. Laurent, and now he has taken a break from haute couture to direct, co-write, and co-produce his first film. A Single Man could have easily been a disastrous vanity project, but, surprisingly, it's a beautiful meditation on loneliness, mortality, and love that has Oscar written all over it.
Adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, the film is set in Los Angeles in 1962 during the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our protagonist, George Falconer, is a gay college professor who is navigating the fall-out from the death of his lover of 16 years as well as the overall sense of doom and uncertainty of the time period. The audience is immediately given full access to his inner sanctum -- his mind is cluttered with painful flashbacks of better times, while he maintains appearances to a neurotic degree (impeccably pressed suits and an immaculate living space). We follow him through his morning rituals, but soon learn that what's different about this particular day is that George has decided it will be his last.
Quite heavy material for someone like Colin Firth, who is best known for fluffy fare (Mamma Mia!) and playing different versions of Mr. Darcy (the BBC's Pride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones' Diary). To be honest, I didn't expect much of Firth, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. I never once saw Colin Firth the actor on the screen, only the raw suffering of his character. He's already won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival and I would be surprised if he didn't go on to win many more awards, maybe even the most prized gold statue of them all.
Julianne Moore is downright delicious as Charley, a woman who only gets out of bed for her gay best friend or a gimlet. Left behind by her husband and children, Charley indulges in a self-sabotaging desire for George, a man she can never have. She hides her yearning under layers of makeup, cigarette smoke, and booze, only for it to reveal itself in ugly ways when she's had too much to drink. Moore is simply brilliant at delivering the pained playfulness of this woman without making a caricature out of her.
In one particularly heart-breaking scene, George is told that his lover's funeral will be "family only." Despite his almost two decade relationship, George is considered invisible because of his sexuality. A Single Man's purpose is to shine a light on how this man is forced by an unforgiving society to hide his truth. In spite of this, the marketing for the movie places George back in the shadows. Posters accentuate the dynamic between George and Charley (one of them even pictures the two lying down in bed together) and any overt gayness has been removed from the American trailers completely.
It's disconcerting that the studio has gone out of its way to represent this story as something it's not. By indulging any apprehension to a gay love story, the studio not only reinforces our culture's latent homophobia, but condones it. When asked if he believes this "de-gaying" approach does a disservice to the film, Colin Firth said: "Yes, I do. It is deceptive. I don't think they should do that because there's nothing to sanitize. It's a beautiful story of love between two men and I see no point in hiding that." Despite the controversy, all will be forgotten in the end. What stays in the mind is the film's unflinching message: all human feeling is equal.
Impeccably shot and hyper stylized in a way that only a fashion designer could pull off, Ford turns every shot into something worthy of a Vogue photo spread, from the arrangement and lighting to the make-up and wardrobe. A Single Man drips with Tom Ford's specific brand of beauty, yet its chic aesthetic never overwhelms the quiet upheaval occurring underneath the characters' fragile veneers. I was left transfixed, incapable of parting with that carefully constructed world and unable to think of anything else. I usually try to stay away from superlatives, but I must say that this is the finest movie I've seen all year. Go see it. Now.
A Single Man is out now. For tickets and information, visit sfgate.com