Tom Ford’s feature debut is a triumph of style and substance, of ecstatic emotions and deadening grief which among its merits is the chance it gives for its lead, Colin Firth, to realise his potential as an actor with a performance worthy of the awards nominations it is receiving. He has done some fine work in recent years and, while making a living out of the legacy of Mr. Darcy in comedies rarely worthy of the name, in A Single Man his quality shines.

Firth’s typecasting is not a surprise. It happened when he emerged drenched from a swim in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejduice, further stapled to the subconscious with his roles as Mark Darcy (see what they did there?) in Bridget Jones’ Diary. He was eternally the emotionally repressed, upper class snob, morally and socially ambiguous, but in Tom Ford’s film Firth is afforded the opportunity to shed the light, literary mask and bring an emotionally complexity to his role as English Professor George Falconer, an Englishman abroad in 1962 America, a gay man whose life is perfectly settled and untroubled, until a sudden tragic event happen. His emotions are repressed but not concealed, his public identity constructed not because of pride or embarrassment, but for survival. Firth is magnetic in the role, and leads us through every moment of this film with grace and considerable character.

Witness the moment in the film when he learns, via a phone call from a perturbed and uncomfortable family member, that his lover has died in a car crash. The agony, the horrific realisation as the force of the sudden, unlooked for despair hits him, is choking. Ford’s camera interrogates Firth’s face as it falls, as his world shrinks, and the strongest bond he has is cut, and his future nothing but a collection of loose ends. All the while he is unable to find release, he cannot mourn because he shouldn’t exist. To be denied the ability to mourn is one step beyond pain, yet Firth remains composed, his words carefully chosen and the mask does not crack. It is a powerful scene, and Firth plays it perfectly.

Ford’s decision to begin the film with the death of Jim and tell the love story in reverse, through fragmented moments, is a bold move, and as it crosses the slow forward motion through George’s self-proclaimed last day the weight of the film is given time to build, and it carries us through to the bitter end. The disquieting sense of grief is played against the normality of a day’s work, it is a heavy burden for Firth and for us, he is angry against his better judgement, the futility of his day and of his endless guilt and regret.

Tom Ford brings his experience in design and fashion as well as architectural appreciation, to bear on each shot in the film. The production design evokes the early 1960s with a flair and depth, rendering a perfect background for the tragic play to unfold. There is a make or break moment when, as George stumbles into flirtatious conversation with a student (Nicholas Hoult, in a superb turn) and the grainy, diluted tones the film has displayed thus far begins to flush with colour. This happens again and again, as the blood returns to George’s heart at the sight of topless male tennis players, or the aforementioned flirtation, and in particular in the random encounter with Jon Kortajarena, playing an impossibly perfect young man, acted out under the watchful gaze of a poster of Janet Leigh’s terrified eyes in a Psycho poster.

The artifice of the colour blooms and the back to front dovetailing narratives may put some people off, to me it worked and drew me in. Ford’s camera is intimate and detached in equal measure. It is a bold move and succeeds on every level.

Ford offers up close ups of facial features, jump cuts during a conversation of Firth’s gaze moving, focusing on eyes shadowed in blues and greens, pink lips talking, the male and female bodies fragmented. He sees a family in the garden of a house opposite his, there is no sound, no connection to his life. As he drives past them on his way to work the camera slows and his eyes meets each family members, a social facade is erected with smiles and nods, then the road opens up before him and his last day continues. On leaving his house he placed a gun in his briefcase, and set out his life in insurance papers and signed documents, there is no sigh of regret; this is one long goodbye.

There are moments of the darkest comedy as Firth fluffs the pillows he uses to prop his head up as the gun is placed in his mouth, then is uncomfortable so he rearranges them, again and again. Julianne Moore has a ostensibly flighty part to play as Charley, Firth’s English friend, immune to his sexuality and hoping to hook up, a desire that is woefully misguided and their scenes together are full of spiteful banter and nostalgic wallowing. One moment, when they are past the giggly drunk stage and moving headlong towards an inescapable self-pity, they are caught under the spell of Billie Holiday’s Stormy Weather. There is an awkward dancing, a swirling miasma of regret is evoked and all that is left is for George to deny Charley’s inevitable advances, and leave, ready to die at his own hand.

Matthew Goode plays Jim, George’s lover, in flashback and their loving, teasing chatter is filled with knowing allusions and double-speak, and it is seductive. Goode’s performance is pitch perfect, essentially a tragic figure unencumbered with knowledge of his fate, his ghost permeates every frame and we are swept up in his wake. There is such sterling support from the rest of the cast but this is Firth’s film. His studied reserve, and complete rapture under the spell of forbidden love, is at turn flirtatious and profound. That Ford, in his feature debut, was able to elicit this performance from an actor playing so close to his typecasting is astounding.

I cannot recommend this movie enough, worth it to enjoy Colin Firth and Ford’s direction, the subtle and sad detailing of grief and the beautiful moment of release at the end. Sublime.