Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut with a movie that’s classy and restrained but still comes off mostly like, well, a glossy fashion spread. A Single Man, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is a passion project for Ford, and he injects every bit of his impeccable design sense into its creation. It helps that the story itself is about surfaces—specifically the façade put on by gay college professor George Falconer (Firth), who in 1962 Los Angeles must every day cover up not only his sexuality but also his grief over the death of his longtime lover in a car accident.
So the motions that George goes through dressing himself meticulously are meant to say something about the masks we wear to hide our true selves, but mostly they just say something about Ford’s fabulous taste. Firth gives a strong, layered performance, but the movie leaves him drifting from scene to scene like a disaffected model. Touches that at first seem clever—like the director’s habit of saturating the frame with color when George experiences a brief moment of pleasure—soon become stale and repetitive. What would be striking in a commercial loses its power when spread over a feature film.
But Firth brings real emotion to the tortured George, and his expressions of grief are the film’s best moments. Less compelling are George’s relationship with his boozy best friend (Moore) and his slow seduction of/by one of his students (Hoult). Worst of all is the movie’s ending, which throws a manipulative twist at the story of George’s fastidious preparations for suicide. It’s the only cheap moment in a movie that’s otherwise all about elegance, even if that elegance can be fussy to the point of inertia.