*A Single Man (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
It's a good thing first-time director Tom Ford — yes, the fashion designer — cast someone with the chops of Colin Firth as his leading man, because it meant that Firth could be left to carry A Single Man while Ford busied himself with fluffing it up like the cinematic equivalent of a fashion magazine spread, or a perfume commercial. Or perhaps Ford deliberately chose Firth so he, the director, wouldn't have to worry about niggling little things like story and character, and could leave such nonsense to his obviously capable star.
Whatever the case: See this alternately moving and frustrating film, for Firth. This intimate drama works as well as it does specifically because he is so compelling, so plausible, so heartbreaking as a college professor in early 1960s Los Angeles mourning the death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode, seen in flashbacks) at a time when such relationships were barely acknowledged, never mind tolerated.
This day-in-the-life tale, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, starts out coolly elegant, the stylish imagery in harmony with Firth's exquisitely delicate performance as he navigates another ordinary, awful day, months after his lover accidentally abandoned him. His George, a reticent but passionate Englishman lost among brash Southern Californians, contends with a student (Nicholas Hoult) who's making advances and might portend a new beginning for the disconsolate professor, and an old friend (Julianne Moore) who may not be as sympathetic to his pain as she first appears.
It's in the one extended sequence between Moore and Firth that the film works best as a cohesive package, in which the director restrains himself and lets the pair create a potent portrait of long-term friendship, with all the unspoken history, tender affection and sometimes simmering bitterness that can go with it ... particularly when one friend may want something different from the relationship than the other.
From the moment we see Moore's Charley preparing for their evening at her snazzy pad, as she plasters on makeup, cigarette dangling carelessly from her lips, she becomes unforgettably vivid: a woman who considers herself past her prime, lonely and hopeless about remedying that, and resentful at the continuing attractiveness of George. They're an odd — and oddly poignant — pair, a gay man and an "older" single woman, both outcasts from the mainstream of their day. Together, they offer an unexpected look at the wages of nonconformity.
It's here, as George and Charley enjoy an evening of boozing, smoking and commiserating, that Ford manages to balance the visual beauty he's obviously so keen to produce with the story that goes along with it. The segment, taken alone, is one of the most strikingly designed bits of cinema of the past year, from the stylish '60s elegance of Charley's home and of their evening wear to the illicit naughtiness of Ford depicting alcohol and tobacco use as so glamorous in our more puritanical times.
Eventually, though, Ford lets a cacophony of dissonant visual guises overpower all else. It's a shame, because in addition to moments between George and Charley, the relationship between Firth and Goode is worth watching. Together they form one of the most wonderfully romantic couples the screen has ever seen, which makes the grief all the more affectingly tragic. Too bad Ford wasn't able to let the grim beauty of it all speak for itself.