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PILLOW PALS: Julianne Moore comforts Colin Firth in 'A Single Man.'

Closet Drama

Colin Firth plays an unopenly gay man in early 1960s Los Angeles in 'A Single Man'

By Richard von Busack

A HANDY WINNER of the award for Most Improved Performer of 2009 is Colin Firth, whose performance in A Single Man is a model of frosty yet sensitive acting. The film debut by director Tom Ford is beautiful, but it's the kind of beauty that it's hard to feel anything about. Ford is working from Christopher Isherwood's novel, essential reading in the gay canon. But the designer-turned-director films as if he's adapting a classic; the material doesn't have any room to take on a life of its own.

Firth plays professor George Falconer, an Englishman in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, when the Brits were still a novelty in that city. He's a bereaved figure; being in the closet, he isn't permitted to show his sorrow after the death of his longtime male lover in an automobile accident. (In flashbacks, we see the lover, played by Matthew Goode.) This single man's secret is known only to his friend Charlotte, called Charley (Julianne Moore), also a former flame, who has never quite gotten over George.

Falconer keeps another secret, though; he is putting his affairs in order, with the plan of committing suicide that night. During the course of one long day, people reach out to him, offering themselves. These include Charley, who has a standing date with George for cocktails; Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a handsome, persistent college student in a white-pink cashmere sweater. George also encounters a stranger, a Spanish actor (or perhaps rent-a-Romeo) named Carlos (Jon Kortajarena). Ford's nostalgia factor is strongest in the passages in which Kenny tries to push his way through George's resistance. This uncertain romance is classic movie stuff: attraction plus resistance—and an element of danger.

Certainly, Firth looks like a man of the era in question. This George resembles George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on 1950s television. Firth has just that kind of attractive remoteness. This English control is contrasted with the riotous French-provincial-on-mescaline décor of Charley's house, inhabited by Moore in hopped hair and triple-decker earrings; she's a woman living on Tanqueray and gold-filtered pink Sherman's cigarettes. Moore practically mainlined her eye shadow to get that zonked 1960s look. Charley re-creates one of those dance sequences that were popular in art movies of the 1960s: those moments where we're not supposed to be sure if we're watching a well-off white woman twisting and shouting, or if we're supposed to be watching a metaphor for the breakdown of society.

The sight of Moore reminds us of the great suspense of those passages in The Hours, dealing with her character's imminent suicide. Despite the opera on A Single Man's soundtrack, it couldn't be less operatic: nothing seems like a matter of life and death. Ford is good with the placement of actors on a set; he's a tableau-maker. The art direction is all in order, but the classic-movie looks of the film just add to the air of beautifully appointed early 1960s soap opera. The fine clothes don't make the men.

A SINGLE MAN (R; 89 min.), directed by Tom Ford, written by Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, photographed by Eduard Grau and starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, opens Friday at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz. (Keep up with Richard's reviews and film news at

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