[Screen It]

(2009) (Colin Firth, Julianne Moore) (R)

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Drama: Still reeling from the unexpected death of his lover of sixteen years, a gay English professor meticulously plots what he plans to be the last day of his life in early 1960s Los Angeles.
It's the early 1960s in Los Angeles and George Falconer (COLIN FIRTH) is an English professor whose lover of sixteen years, Jim (MATTHEW GOODE), has now been dead for eight months following a fatal single car accident. George has continued existing but not really living, leaning on his friend and one-time heterosexual lover, Charlotte (JULIANNE MOORE), for support, while observing the domestic life of neighbor Susan Strunk (GINNIFER GOODWIN) and her family.

He's also continued teaching, although his material has become more philosophical, drawing the attention of one of his students, Kenny (NICHOLAS HOULT), who seems interested in his professor for more than just academics. George, however, has no intention of doing anything with that as he's planning on making this day his last, his continued grief and emptiness driving him to that decision.

Yet, rather than do anything spontaneously, he meticulously plots his suicide, tying up loose ends and putting his estate in order. As the day marches on toward his fateful decision, George contemplates his past and present while interacting with Charlotte and, to his surprise, Kenny who may just give him enough hope to reconsider what he has planned.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When it comes to filmmakers and what's seen up there on the screen, some are all style and no substance (which usually applies to those who cut their directing teeth on music videos that are nearly always the epitome of that phrase), while others might deliver interesting and even moving films, but are so bland from a visual standpoint that said look makes no impression and quickly evaporates from one's consciousness and certainly memory.

The goal, of course, is to achieve some sort of happy medium where style and substance coexist. One of the best at that was Stanley Kubrick. While not all of his works were as good as his masterpieces, most of his films had a look -- and I can't really express what that was in words beyond "visual aura" -- that immediately signaled they were his.

Given the fact that he's now only made one film, it's obviously too early to state with certainty that director Tom Ford has a certain style. But he certainly knows style and puts it to good use in "A Single Man," a powerful period drama about loss, despair and how the littlest of things can make a big, nay, truly monumental change in one's life.

Considering Ford's better known background as a photographer and designer/creative director for this little fashion company perhaps a few of you have heard of -- Gucci -- it isn't terribly surprising that he's brought the same panache to the screen. Simply put, the entire thing (composition, lighting and the rest of the entire nine yards) looks gorgeous. Coupled with the similar but not quite as artsy look of TV's "Mad Men," the early 1960s are certainly appearing better and better in hindsight.

As has been the case with Don Draper, the wafting cigarette smoke, martinis, business attire and home & office settings, however, such handsomeness needs some substance to accompany it and Ford delivers on that scale too. Working from the screenplay he adapted with David Scearce from Christopher Isherwood's novel, the filmmaking novice delves into the psyche of a desperate man who's chosen the day we get to witness as his last.

You see, the gay English professor is still grieving over the loss of his partner of the past sixteen years and doesn't see the point of going on. The fact that he meticulously arranges his last day -- visiting the bank, putting out his funeral attire, meeting his best friend for dinner and even trying to find the most comfortable way to do the final deed (in a sequence that quickly segues from unsettling to funny to sad and then back around again) -- says a great deal about him.

And as good as Ford is in presenting this man to us, it's the performance by Colin Firth that really drives the emotional core of the story. Best known for various period costume dramas (such as "Pride and Prejudice") and the "Bridget Jones" films, the actor delivers what's arguable the best work he's done to date and clearly among the best of the year as measured against his peers. It's hard to predict whether he'll win, but a nomination would clearly seem to be a given.

Along with the delivery of his lines (including in unnecessary but not altogether annoying voice over narration) and interaction with others (including Matthew Goode as his late lover seen in flashbacks, Julianne Moore doing the '60s middle-aged woman bit as his past lover back when he was straight, and Nicholas Hault as a "boy toy" who toys with his mind and heart), it's Firth's physical transformation that really differentiates this performance from the others in his career.

There's just something about the way he carries himself that signals all that's stuffed up inside him, and his face interestingly segues from looking like the Firth we all know to something akin to Bill Pullman before changing over to a Roger Moore/Adam West 1960s appearance (I'm guessing the big period glasses elicited that reaction from yours truly).

While Ford might overuse some motifs (most notably several imagined views of Firth swimming nude underwater, but also various views and/or sounds of clocks ticking away, signaling both that time is seemingly limited for him yet keeps marching on), his storytelling acumen is solid, and his having the story jump around through time thankfully is neither annoying nor distracting as can oft be the case.

Overall, this is quite an impressive debut from a man who knows a thing or two about how things should look, but it's Firth's understated, touching and devastating performance that results in one being unable to look away. "A Single Man" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2009 / Posted December 30, 2009

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