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A Sin­gle Man, drama, rated R, CCA Cin­e­math­eque, 3.5 chiles

Ev­ery day for the last eight months, a mid­dle-aged English­man named Ge­orge (Colin Firth) has wo­ken up in his en­vi­able Santa Mon­ica home, but that stir­ring has “ac­tu­ally hurt.” Ge­orge is mourn­ing the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, who died in a car crash. Without Jim, life is point­less, and Ge­orge has trou­ble find­ing a rea­son to carry on.

Loosely based on Christo­pher Ish­er­wood’s 1964 novel of the same name, A Sin­gle Man could also have been ti­tled “A Sin­gle Day”: all of the events take place in one 24-hour pe­riod. Noth­ing es­pe­cially dra­matic hap­pens. Ge­orge goes about his rou­tine— dress­ing, drink­ing cof­fee, and driv­ing to work at a lo­cal col­lege, where he’s a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he flashes back to his happy, comfortable life with Jim.

As the day wears on, though, we re­al­ize that Ge­orge does not plan to en­dure the pain of an­other morn­ing’s wak­ing. As though it were some­thing he did ev­ery day, he calmly cleans out his desk draw­ers; emp­ties his safe-de­posit box; buys bul­lets for the gun in his brief­case; and with the fas­tid­i­ous at­ten­tion given to a mu­seum exhibit, lays out keys, im­por­tant pa­per­work, and the suit he would pre­fer to wear in his cof­fin (in­clud­ing a note spec­i­fy­ing a Wind­sor knot for his tie).

A Sin­gle Man is the highly an­tic­i­pated di­rec­to­rial de­but from cel­e­brated fash­ion de­signer Tom Ford (a for­mer and some­time Santa Fe res­i­dent).

As might be ex­pected, Ford’s first foray into film is — not un­like the clothes he has de­signed for Gucci, Yves Saint Lau­rent, and his own line — metic­u­lously tai­lored, beau­ti­fully styled, and sexy. Many se­quences have the de­lib­er­ate art­ful­ness of ad­ver­tis­ing (one black-and-white flash­back of Ge­orge and Jim loung­ing and chat­ting in a rocky land­scape im­me­di­ately brought to mind a Calvin Klein ad). The movie ex­hibits an un­ques­tion­able rev­er­ence for at­trac­tive ex­te­ri­ors, but Ford isn’t only out to paint a pretty pic­ture — if he were, why would he have cho­sen such in­tensely emo­tional ma­te­rial?

In con­trast to an­other film I re­cently screened ( Leap Year, which also stars Goode), the vi­su­als in A Sin­gle Man serve as more than just an al­lur­ing back­drop. Ev­ery de­tail feels con­sid­ered and in­ten­tional: tick­ing clocks — and other sounds that mimic them — or mag­ni­fied watch­ful eyes shown in cos­metic mir­rors and on bill­boards. Ford and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ed­uard Grau use vi­su­als to con­nect us with the real emo­tion that’s cours­ing be­neath Ge­orge’s per­fectly com­posed, care­fully con­trolled ex­te­rior. Shifts in color alert us to Ge­orge’s chang­ing mood: most of the time, he drifts along in a nos­tal­gic 1960s reverie of gray, beige, tan, and um­ber, looking as though he might ac­tu­ally fade away. Yet at ran­dom mo­ments, when Ge­orge pauses to ap­pre­ci­ate a sun­set, a rose in bloom, an at­trac­tive young man, or a dog’s fur, re­viv­ing color rushes in, like blood to a pal­lid girl’s cheeks.

Style oc­ca­sion­ally threat­ens to over­whelm sub­stance, but Firth pulls the film back from the brink. His breath­tak­ingly sub­tle per­for­mance is one of the finest I’ve seen lately and a pin­na­cle of his ca­reer thus far (he re­ceived the Volpi Cup for best ac­tor at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val for it). Al­though Ford puts Ge­orge in snappy suits, Firth’s face only shows rem­nants of joy and beauty, as though his will to live has been stripped away. In a piv­otal scene, one of Jim’s rel­a­tives (fans of Mad Men will rec­og­nize Jon Hamm’s un­cred­ited voice) calls to re­port that Jim has been killed in a car crash. Ford fixes the cam­era on Firth as Ge­orge’s face reg­is­ters shock, dis­be­lief, hu­mil­i­at­ing re­jec­tion— the fu­neral is “for fam­ily only”— and hor­ror. While his tele­phone voice sug­gests he’s calm and un­rat­tled, his eyes show that his whole world is, in that mo­ment, crash­ing down around him. Ev­ery twitch of his mouth or dart­ing of his eyes sug­gests some­thing earth-shat­ter­ing that’s buried be­neath the sur­face.

Some crit­ics have faulted the film for be­ing overly styl­ized and art-di­rected, for keep­ing emo­tion— and the au­di­ence— at arm’s length. To me, though, the de­ci­sion to give Ge­orge such a cool, calm ex­te­rior seems cru­cial. A Sin­gle Man takes place in 1962, a clos­eted time when gay men and women were of­ten forced to hide their true feel­ings and pub­licly pass for het­ero­sex­ual. Even Ge­orge’s clos­est, old­est friend, Charley ( Ju­lianne Moore, in an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally overblown per­for­mance), be­lieves that Ge­orge and Jim didn’t have a “real” re­la­tion­ship. Ge­orge is griev­ing, which is painful enough, but he must keep his grief a se­cret. He man­ages his el­e­gant ex­te­rior to hide the soul in ru­ins un­der­neath.

Ge­orge’s care­fully con­cealed pain con­trib­utes to the film’s ten­sion. I be­gan to won­der whether he would go through with his plans, and though he presents a cheer­ful fa­cade, my sense of dread rarely let up. Ford re­in­forces the sus­pense by hav­ing news of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis squawk over the ra­dio and by hav­ing Ge­orge park his car be­neath the wild wide eyes of Janet Leigh on a bill­board ad for Psy­cho. And then, for a mo­ment, the ten­sion re­lents. We see joy rush back into Ge­orge’s life briefly, and we won­der whether a cer­tain thing or per­son will con­vince him to change his mind.

A Sin­gle Man is a heart­break­ing story. You could dis­miss its per­va­sive vis­ual al­lure as su­per­fi­cial and claim that Ford is miss­ing the point; but to me see­ing beauty in everyday things is pre­cisely the point. The tick-tock of a clock that book­ends the film serves as a re­minder that life is short; the flush­ing and fad­ing color shouts, “Beauty is fleet­ing!” In many ways, A Sin­gle Man re­minded me of 1999’s Amer­i­can Beauty. In that film, a part­ing note in voice-over urges the au­di­ence to re­al­ize what re­ally mat­ters in life be­fore it’s too late: “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.”

Mid­day cow­boys: Colin Firth, left, and Jon Kor­ta­jarena

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