Like the speck of sand that seeds a pearl, it’s the tiny fleck of kitsch at the heart of “A Single Man” that makes it luminous and treasurable, despite its imperfections. An impressive helming debut for fashion designer Tom Ford, who co-wrote the script with David Scearce, pic freely adapts Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel set in Los Angeles, circa 1962, in which a college prof (Colin Firth), grieving for his dead lover, contemplates death. Sterling perfs from a tony cast rep a selling point for the Weinstein Co. pickup, but its ripely homoerotic flavor will make finding lovers in the sticks more difficult.
Described by novelist Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement,” Isherwood’s “A Single Man” presents a stream-of-consciousness portrait of a middle-aged gay man, known only as George, going about his daily routine in early ‘60s LA. Ford’s script, which, per the press notes, departs significantly from Scearce’s earlier draft, remains fairly close in spirit to the original but departs from it in one major direction: Here, Brit expat George Falconer (Firth, who took acting honors at Venice) is so bereft over the recent death of his longtime companion, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident, that he’s planning to commit suicide — a plot point that injects tension into what might have been too quotidian a story had Isherwood’s template been followed to the letter.
Action is confined to a single day, during which George puts his affairs in order. Telling no one of his plans, he follows what’s clearly a routine schedule — bantering with his housekeeper (Paulette Lamori), exchanging polite pleasantries with the all-American family next door and teaching his English class at a small college.
Already detaching himself from the now, George can barely muster the energy to argue with a colleague (Lee Pace) about the ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis unfolding on the news. However, one of his students, the beautifully chiseled Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, the kid from “About a Boy,” now all grown up) insists on approaching George to discuss literature, drugs and life in general; the glint in Kenny’s eye hints at something more than purely educational interest.
After a chaste afternoon encounter with a yet another gorgeous man (Jon Kortajarena), clearly a hustler looking for trade, George makes his way to the house of his friend Charley (Julianne Moore) for dinner that evening. An old friend from Blightly whom George once slept with, as flashbacks reveal, now-dipsomaniac divorcee Charley still can’t accept that George, whom she knows is gay, will never want a “normal” married life with her, despite their rich friendship. Scene in which she makes what is presumably the latest in a long line of drunken passes at him is a classic, demonstrating extraordinary emotional nuance from Firth and Moore, both of whom firmly grasp the best roles either has had in some time.
Ford’s largely delicate touch reps a pleasant surprise, especially given his only filmmaking experience hitherto has been overseeing advertising campaigns for Gucci and his own current, self-named line of fashion products. Clearly this is material close to his heart, and the empathy shines through. What’s more impressive is the skill he shows at evoking quietly sensual details, conjuring how, for instance, sniffing a stranger’s dog brings back memories of George’s beloved pet.
Less surprising, given Ford’s background, is the just-so exquisiteness of the overall look, not just in the men’s clothes (Ford designed Firth’s and Hoult’s figure-hugging suits and casual outfits himself), but in the interiors and femme costumes, too, for which production designer Dan Bishop and costume designer Arianne Phillips respectively deserve co-credit. The way Charley’s pink-and-gold parlor harmonizes not just with her sweeping monochrome dress but also her pink Sobranie cigarettes will evoke swoons of delight in auds for whom magazines like Wallpaper and Architectural Digest are holy writ.
Indeed, the period detailing is almost too perfectly done, to the point where one can’t help sensing the adman in Ford, nursing every detail to look not just accurate but impeccable and fashion-forward. Avid fans of “Mad Men” will notice not only that those pink Sobranies featured in an episode a few weeks before “A Single Man” premiered in Venice, but also that “Mad Men” gets the occasional ugliness of the period’s design better. An uncredited, voice-only appearance here by “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm further evokes the series.
It might be argued that Ford is so keen to show immaculate taste, he’ll make sacrifices at the expense of verisimilitude, except that one key element in the filmmaking really does show an almost vulgar streak: Ford and lenser Eduard Grau’s decision to play with the color saturation, so that the initially dun-and-dreary color scheme will suddenly morph in a single shot to a warmer palette, as if the lovely things George sees — a handsome face, a pretty blue dress — have literally brightened his day. The effect might have come off better if it had been more subtly deployed, but then again, that little quantum of kitsch might turn out to be what will make auds love this film all the more in years to come.