Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in a scene in A Single Man

Tom Ford’s Directorial Debut ‘A Single Man’

Tom Fords directorial debut, A Single Man, is a stylishly personal adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel that revisits the age-old story of a man who wakes up one morning and decides to kill himself.

Dramatic and aesthetic restraint drive the style here. Ford downplays the suspense of a professors journey unto death over the course of some 24 hours in 1962. Fords real focus is the agonizing isolation of a gay man, George Falconer (Colin Firth), who loses his longtime lover in a road accident, and finds himself alone in a society thats indifferent to the pain that cripples him.

Tom Ford "A Single Man"

Tom Ford on the set of 'A Single Man'

The vogue for fashion on the screen these days and the praise from critics ever since A Single Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September should help the film follow in the steps of successful documentaries like Valentino and The September Issue to rally the glam audience on both coasts and in Europe.

Colin Firth in A Single Man

Colin Firth as George Falconer in 'A Single Man'

Yet the film could test whether theres much of a public in the fly-over, beyond the obvious archipelagos of tolerance. Initial signs are not encouraging.  The films distributor, the Weinstein Company, removed a kiss between two men from the trailer which played in movie theaters between promos for Invictus and The Princess and the Frog. Ford, who has a reputation for being uncompromising, reportedly agreed reluctantly to the cut, in the hope that the film might be easier to market to a mainstream audience.  Well see.

One clue to the difficulty of marketing such a story should have been Fords difficulty in financing the project, which ended up costing a mere $7 million – and looking like a film with many times that budget. (Lets not forget that when you have friends like David Geffen urging you to finance a film yourself, difficulty is a relative term.) Another sign of roadblocks on the horizon was the lack of companies vying to distribute it.

Matthew Goode in A Single Man

Matthew Goode in 'A Single Man'

It shouldnt be a surprise that Tom Ford would emerge from the world of fashion to deliver a film that makes a striking impression. Ford (ex-Yves St. Laurent, ex-Gucci) has been working in an image-driven business for years. He understands and exploits the power of photography. Hes waged ad campaigns with moving pictures that infused commercials deploying the music video medium with the vocabulary of soft porn. Hes leveraged popular myths to anticipate popular styles – risking and making fortunes. And he knows how to draw attention to his work and himself.

Yet his much-awaited film that took five years to make is more than a series of handsomely accessorized fashion shots, thanks to a taut lean script that is credited to Ford, who optioned Isherwoods book and an existing screenplay by David Scearce. The assurance isnt just in the spare writing. In sections without dialogue that slow the passage of time and force the audience inside a decision to put an end to it all, Firth follows the destiny and doubt of a man convinced that he has nothing to live for, but allows himself the distraction of engaging those who cross his path – blithely opinionated students, a chic woman with a fox terrier like the one who died with his boyfriend in the crash, a Guess-model of a Spanish hustler whos marooned in the parking lot of a mini-mall in the chemical colors of an LA sunset.

Julianne Moore in A Single Man

Julianne Moore as Charlotte in 'A Single Man'

If the emotions of A Single Man are achingly real, the atmosphere is the kind of realism that a film-awed fashion designer has imagined, shot by the prodigious young Eduard Grau in gauzy old 35 mm Kodak stock. No hi-def here. Theres too much numbness in the story for that, as Julianne Moore reminds us of the many dimensions of her talent in the role of Charlotte, a forty-ish once-stunning Brit divorcee, stuck in a big LA house, but self-administering a slower death with gin and cigarettes than the one George plans with a revolver.

When Charlotte comes on to the now-single George at a drunken dinner, and asks whether his long relationship with a man was “just a substitute,” you feel the incomprehension thats driving him over the cliff.  Even his best friends dont get it.

A Single Man

'A Single Man'

Ford is telling us that it isnt the booze, its the straight world. Which makes it hard to believe him when he says in interviews (and there are many) that the gayness of George isnt central to this movie, nor is the gayness of Tom Ford.  His film tells a different story. When the straight world isnt indifferent, its just stupid. Beautiful children act out whims of violence across the street from Georges house, or repeat the clichés about “light in their loafers” men that their parents tell them.  Is this 1962 or the present?  The box office could give us a hint or two.

A Single Man

A black and white scene in 'A Single Man'

Im not optimistic. The subject matter could be as much of a challenge to A Single Man as a foreign language. Gay-themed stories on television are restricted mostly to comedies, where the audience gets campy with the characters and follows the laugh track. Fashion cable shows are like shopping: consumption driven, how-to programs. But cinema demands more of the audience emotionally, asking viewers to believe in the validity of the emotions in a relationship. Look at the recent votes on gay marriage in California and Maine, and youll see what A Single Man is up against in the heartland.

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