A Single Man -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Designer Tom Ford makes a surprisingly successful leap from the fashion industry to the big screen with "A Single Man," a standout directing debut about a gay college professor who loses his longtime partner. The theme of the search for meaning after a great loss is developed with great sensitivity thanks to Colin Firth's moving performance in the main role -- for which he won the best actor prize here -- and should help the film go beyond gay audiences to attract the more mainstream attention of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Far From Heaven."

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, the screenplay by Ford and David Scearce is concise. It opens with a fatal car crash in 1962, in which Jim (Matthew Goode) is killed. George Falconer (Firth) learns about his lover's death the next day when a relative phones, but he is warned not to attend the funeral of the man he lived with for 16 years.

Brokenhearted and alone, he seeks comfort from his long-ago-flame-now-friend Charley (Julianne Moore), who obviously still is in love with him. But George is too devastated to be interested in either sex and even rebuffs the approach of a hot young hustler (Jon Kortajarena, a true James Dean look-alike). He tries to avoid getting involved with his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who is just discovering his sexual preferences and aggressively courting the older man. Instead, he makes plans for committing suicide.

Most of the action takes place over the course of a single day in Los Angeles in the early '60s, when being gay was socially disapproved. The film brushes ever so lightly on the issue of discrimination, first implicitly, when George lectures his students on how society fears what it is not, and later, in a beautifully calibrated tete-a-tete between George and Charley, when she insinuates George and Jim did not have a "real relationship."

Through snatches of their life together, it is apparent that George and Jim had a very real and loving relationship no matter what 1960s America thought. Their love story is contrasted to the next-door neighbors, who are down-to-earth suburbanites busy raising families and building nuclear bomb shelters. When a colleague tells George there won't be time for sentiment when the bomb falls, George characteristically retorts that he's not interested in living in a world without feeling.

Firth's measured performance, delivered in a clipped British accent, has just the right restraint, and the intelligent dialogue is a pleasure. Moore is glamorous and likable as the alcoholic divorcee Charley, adrift without a husband. Goode and especially Hoult are just too perfect to be true, but they serve the purpose of offering George good reasons to stay alive.

In contrast to Firth's underplaying, the directing has its overblown, operatic soul. Ford is unafraid of such cringeworthy moments as playing an opera solo over a suicide attempt or having a nattily dressed symbolic figure in Tom Ford Menswear give the kiss of death to the recently departed.

In the same spirit, tech work is satisfyingly bold. Dan Bishop's stylish production design and Eduard Grau's cinematography set the film in a romantically idealized '60s world. The film score written by Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi is variegated and full of lush orchestral themes that salute Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, among others.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production company: Fade to Black, Depth of Field
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Jon Kortajarena
Director: Tom Ford
Screenwriters: Tom Ford, David Scearce based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood
Executive producers:
Producers: Tom Ford, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano, Roberto Salerno with Jason Alisharan
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Dan Bishop
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Additional music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Costumes: Arianne Phillips
Editor: Joan Sobel
99 minutes
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