The publicity department behind the art-house drama A Single Man wants you to know something. The message is everywhere, on posters and print ads, on the internet and in the credits, in white type on black background: this is, they say over and over, A Film by Tom Ford. And not for nothing: Tom Ford isn’t a director. He’s a fashion designer. What they really want to say, but probably had a hard time fitting on the poster, is that A Single Man is a movie of style, for people of style—that Ford’s fingerprints are on it. This is a perfectly valid marketing decision—the man does know from pretty—but it also glosses over what the film really is: gilded, certainly, but also compact and surprisingly economical. This is no vanity project, or if it is, it’s a pretty good one.
Adapted, produced, and directed by Ford, A Single Man is based on Christopher Isherwood‘s novel of the same title, about a man (George Falconer, played by Colin Firth) struggling with his own survival—as in, whether he wants to survive or not—after the sudden death of his longtime partner. First and foremost, the movie is, as one would hope, coming from the former creative director of Gucci, stunningly and lusciously visual. Its richness is twofold: it’s beautifully shot, a story told in light and image and color (or the lack thereof); additionally, everything in the movie is just so stylish. Set in the Los Angeles of the early 1960s, every object seems have sprung straight from the perfume-ad universe in which Ford undoubtedly lives. It’s all pleasingly specific: George’s spectacular mid-century home and car, his clothes (Ford’s, of course), and basically everything tangible to do with Moore’s character are spot-on for who George is, where he’s coming from, and why this kind of unattractive, chaotic grief is especially hard on him.
But for all the visual decadence of the film, Ford is diligent and disciplined with everything else: the script is spare and thoughtful, the direction feels ample yet efficient, and nothing drags. Only towards the end, in a single scene filmed in the ocean, does the movie veer into self-indulgence, with a sequence that’s over-scored and a little on the freshman-comp side of things.
As meditations on loneliness go, A Single Man is definitely sad, but never maudlin or even, ultimately, especially depressing. In fact, George’s deep and abiding grief is set alongside humor ranging from the gently poignant to the Harold and Maude-style black—it’s the humor of life, of the way things go, and both Ford and Firth show admirable light-handedness as they allow the two to coexist and interact.
Firth has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn as George; besides looking good for the first time since he dove into a pond after his manuscript (probably not the actual grounds for his nomination), his performance is subtle and he refuses to chew the scenery. As George’s student with possible benefits, Nicholas Hoult comes across a bit stilted (and is wearing a distractingly fuzzy sweater), but he’s also convincingly earnest in a role in which most of what’s said must be gleaned from between the lines. In any case, it’s irrelevant once you realize that, somewhere along the line, this:
grew into this:
The weaker link is Julianne Moore as George’s consciously melodramatic friend Charley; her accent doesn’t ring true next to Firth’s, and although she isn’t terrible, she may be the only element of the film that’s visibly putting out effort onscreen. Her concentration doesn’t blend with the sea of cool around her; she stands out when she wasn’t necessarily meant to.
A Single Man is an impressive balancing act on Ford’s part: a film that is deliberately artsy, made to be savored and admired and looked at, but also a film that tells a story without stagnating or, for the most part, navel-gazing. It’s sad, but not crushing. It’s a showpiece, but not only a showpiece. It’s maybe a little pretentious, but not a lot pretentious—a perfect bull’s-eye for a movie straight out of the fashion industry.