Few first-time directors come out of the gate with all guns firing, but Tom Ford appears to have done so with A Single Man, a superbly acted, emotionally intriguing and visually stimulating drama that is one of the year's best.
In A Single Man, Colin Firth plays George, a history lecturer who has lost his way in the world. His lover and partner Jim (Matthew Goode) has died in a car wreck, leaving him emotionally cold and without purpose. He goes about his life with a cold numbness, carrying out his duties while never fully present. He finds solace in his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore), but even she can't bring him back. It's only when one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) takes an interest in him that a glimmer of light appears at the end of the tunnel, but by then it may be too late.
Based on how award shows are playing out, Ford has been denied directorial accolades for his debut, but his work on A Single Man, combined with his screenplay, which in turn is based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, is magnificent. A Single Man is at once subdued and precisely calculated, every camera angle, quick edit and color flare contributing to the honed sculpture that is the final product. It's easy to go overboard with style - many directors have fallen into the trap - but Ford pulls back at the right moments. His direction breathes fuller life into an already vibrant story.
Firth, who to American audiences is primarily known as variations of Mr. Darcy, turns in the best performance of his career, and easily one of the year's best. For those used to seeing him as a gentle, slightly bumbling Brit, their perceptions will be changed by the role of George; he looks, sounds and acts different than any previous incarnation the actor has taken on, and those changes lie in his performance - not his makeup. The audience is able to connect with him even though he is detached from everyone in the film; that feat is neither easy nor should be overlooked.
Moore and Hoult turn in fine supporting performances.
As good as A Single Man is, the ending left me wanting just a little more. This seems to be a trend this year - great movies such as An Education have floundered in the waning minutes - though given a few weeks between watching the movie and writing this review, the more I appreciate the film's climax. The scenes leading up to the final scene are emotionally tense, almost thrilling, and perhaps the way the story ends is a fitting, logical closure to all that. Still, at the time, it left me wanting more, a more substantial wrap-up of George's story than what Ford, and presumably Isherwood, give us.
The ending is a little abrupt, but A Single Man is one of the best movies of 2009. Ford's direction and writing are superb, and Firth is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Highly recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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