Musicians are notorious for failing completely in their attempts to cross over to acting. Rapper Ice Cube has had a prolific career starring in jewels like “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Are We Done Yet?” Jennifer Lopez had “Gigli.” Mariah Carey had “Glitter.” Madonna — let’s not even go there. But when a fashion designer makes the transition to film, what happens? The result is “A Single Man,” a startlingly potent portrait of a gay man on the brink of suicide after his partner unexpectedly dies in a car crash.

“A Single Man”

At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company

It’s no surprise that the directorial debut of Tom Ford — formerly the creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent — should be beautiful. Just look at his sleek line of tailored menswear or his sexually charged commercials for his fragrance YSL L’Homme and you know this man can produce something lyrically and visually brilliant. No, the greatest surprise is that beyond all that surface beauty, Ford can transform his hauntingly lineated images and emotions into something that hits on a primal level.

Oscar-nominated Colin Firth (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) plays George, the single man depicted in the title. George is an English professor in the 1960s whose partner died eight months ago, trying to live his life out day by day. Firth’s performance is truly a marvel, managing to break out of the “nice guy” typecast perpetuated by years of trite romantic comedies. It’s difficult to portray a character in these types of “emotion” films, because the storyline is so slight, and it’s to Firth’s credit that he can attach real meaning to the deep grief his character feels. Within his carefully composed appearance there is no outlet for escape, so the wrinkles on his forehead and the despair in his eyes need to do the work for him. Across his sunken, furrowed brow are etched a whole history of emotions — sadness, remembrance, hopelessness.

Yet just when the film threatens to sink into a cesspool of exquisite depression, salvation arrives in the form of Julianne Moore (“Children of Men”). Moore plays Charley, a boozy 40-something divorcée still in love with her gay, heartbroken best friend. George pays Charley a visit on the eve of his planned suicide, and the result is a swoony, exhilarating, heartbreaking dream of a scene. The two spend a night of drunken reminiscence and hysterical laughter together, then furiously dance until they pass out on the floor, leaving two tantalizing trails of smoke behind them.

The film evokes a level of sophistication difficult to find in any romance, gay or straight. The delectable few flashbacks to George’s boyfriend Jim (played with delicious bitchiness by Matthew Goode from “Brideshead Revisited”) are as perfectly tailored as the cut and style of a crisp, white button-down.

Yet where the strengths truly lie are the irreplicable images with which Ford leaves us. The flutter of a young student’s winged eyelash is juxtaposed against the fuzz of another’s white angora sweater. Strands of violin strings weave in and out of the background while a mass of rippled muscles emerges from the water. This is the Tom Ford we’ve come to expect. This is the Tom Ford who appreciates the human physique and the power of a melody to transport the audience to a higher emotional level. Ford never forgets where his roots lie, liberally drenching his film in the visual and auditory aesthetic.

But for all his stylistic feats, Ford can get a little too carried away with his artistry. He has a tendency to experiment with color tones — when George is sad, the entire composition cools down into icy blues and zombie-walking. It seems to scream, “I am sad!” Yet once anything remotely positive perchances upon his life, the frame immediately warms up into sun-flecked silhouettes and candy hues. It’s all just a little bit too dramatic — beautiful, but too dramatic. But this move can be forgiven, as it’s something that can be attributed more to inexperience than pretension.

What Ford does exquisitely well is craft a fine portrait of a man tragically heartbroken. “A Single Man” is a triumphant, understated debut from a man who hopefully will go on to create a masterpiece. While this particular film isn’t quite that masterpiece, it’s pretty damn close.

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