A couple of years ago, fashion designer Tom Ford was given the unlikely task of guest-editing Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue. The openly gay Ford infamously put himself on the cover, cavorting with a nude Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly after Rachel McAdams backed out as the third unclothed muse. (Ford kept his suit on for the shoot.) Little did we know then that it was part of Ford's transition into an actual film director, and here he debuts with a sometimes moving, sometimes strange adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man, in which Colin Firth stars as a gay college professor in 1962 Santa Monica who is dealing with the accidental death of his lover of 16 years.
What is most remarkable about the film is Firth's performance. Slimmed down and focused, he is a far cry from the cute, pudgy British fuddy-duddy he usually plays (such as in Love, Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary). In fact, watching him here is almost like seeing the debut of a great actor we have never seen before. He completely carries the film and deserves whatever accolades he gets. Julianne Moore, exhibiting a fairly convincing British accent, is also good as Firth's lonely best friend, with whom he shares a poignant, sometimes painful evening during the story's daylong course of events. Where Ford falters is in casting young Nicholas Hoult as a college student infatuated with Firth. The British-born Hoult does well with his California kid accent, but he is no match for Firth; you can see the gulf in quality between their work in every scene. (This just goes to show you that gay directors often make the same mistakes that straight directors do: they cast a pretty face where they should have opted for a more forceful onscreen presence.)
Ford also gives the film a visual style that, while unique, is sometimes heavy-handed. (There is a rather obvious gimmick throughout the film where, when Firth is alone, the colors fade to near-gray, but whenever he sees a beautiful young man or feels happy, the colors become super-saturated.) It is the work of an amateur, and I mean that in the best sense, in that Ford is trying out new things because this is a labor of love for him and he's excited about it. I do laud him for that. But these tricks come across as a bit pretentious at times. All in all, I appreciated A Single Man for Firth's performance, the cinematography, and the lush, Bernard Herrmann-esque score, but I felt robbed of the emotion I should have felt for its heartbreaking story by Ford's distractingly arty visuals.