Colin Firth comes alive by playing a person dying in A Single Man. After a career mostly frittered away as foppish dandies in frothy romantic comedies, it's a pleasure to see Firth sink his acting chops into the meat and gristle of a complex, textured dramatic role.
As 50-year-old gay college professor George Falconer, Firth is buttoned down and bottled up, a precise man who keeps his emotions as deeply buried as his sexuality.
His lover (Matthew Goode) of 16 years recently died in a car crash. It's a loss George can't begin to mourn in public nor private. Firth delivers a rich, adult and lived-in performance, a feat of agility made all the more remarkable because director Tom Ford steps on his toes.
A fashion designer and bon vivant, Ford brings a stylish sense to his directing debut, but not the finesse to keep the material from sagging under its own seriousness. In his day job (he once turned around the Gucci fashion house), Ford's been called abrasive, and there's something slightly grating in his directorial style, like bits of sand in your swim trunks. Ford never met a slow-mo sequence he didn't like, and occasionally his delicate compositions devolve into fashion-layout parody, including a black-and-white flashback of George and his lover lying shirtless on a ragged cliff side, which could be a 1990s Obsession for Men ad.
The film shares the same sleek, early-'60s world of Mad Men (keep alert for a Jon Hamm cameo) and themes of people struggling behind thin veneers of respectability that conceal their true selves. Though heartsick George suits up, buffs loafers and slicks hair in the morning, he can't find much reason to care about a world that's missing both his soul mate and the compassion to accept their love at face value. He gets some comfort from longtime friend, and one-time lover Charley (Julianne Moore), a fun-loving lush who has hopelessly, for decades, carried a torch for him.
The only light in George's suicidal cloud comes from a handsome and very inquisitive student (Nicholas Hoult), whose interest in George extends well past literature. It's too easy to say that George's suffering is universal, because his feelings are, but his circumstances are not. Ford's attempting to express something unique and unspoken about the nature of gay relationships, in a primal, carnal way that mainstream audiences may miss or read as camp, as the film is as much about lust as it is about love, about physical longing.
The director's vanity is as meticulous and fussy as his hero, and he keeps asserting himself in the scenes with self-conscious distractions, fiddling with the color tone in a scene — sometimes within a shot.
If Ford's reach exceeds his grasp, at least he's made the effort, and he clearly has a knack for squeezing the best stuff from his actors, and the never-better Firth oozes brilliance in every frame.
Opens Friday, Jan. 15, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.