A Single Man
is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, which is written as the internal monologue of a man who has made up his mind to commit suicide. If you know this, the first few minutes of the movie are a bit unnerving. Colin Firth, playing the title character -- a handsome, low-key college professor named George -- narrates the opening scenes by essentially reading lengthy passages from the book: the laziest possible approach to a challenging adaptation. There's little that does more to try my patience than this sort of extended "literary" voiceover. Not to be melodramatic, but in its worst incarnations, it's an affront to cinema. At the very least it misses the point.

Within a few minutes, though, first-time director Tom Ford finds his groove. Ford is a fashion designer by trade, a fact to which early reviewers have done their darnedest to ascribe significance -- a bit of a contrived exercise, it seems to me, since one certainly could not guess his prior occupation just from watching the film. In fact, despite the shaky start, Ford finds an elegant, striking way of bringing this material to the screen. Much of A Single Man is an elegiac tone poem, rendered haunting by Ford's beautifully composed images, and propelled by a gorgeous, somewhat Philip Glass-like musical score by little-known Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski. If you want a reference point, I'd name The Hours, which may send some readers screaming from the room -- but Ford's film has the same sort of nimble flow and sorrowful beauty.

George's life revolves around a death. He has lost his lover of fifteen years, Jim (played by Matthew Goode in flashback) -- and his days now seem like a pointless, hollow routine. "Today," he tells us in voiceover, "I have decided will be different." He fishes out an old handgun, resolving to use it at nightfall, and goes about his daily business one final time. He goes to class, giving an unusually impassioned lecture, and catching the attention of a student (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult, all grown up) whose interest in him may not be purely academic. (Does the student have some inkling of George's state of mind? "You seem as though you could use a friend," he says.) He pays one last visit to his oldest friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a lonely, still-beautiful woman who has long carried a torch for him. He goes to the bank and empties his deposit box. In a chillingly convincing scene, he practices the nuts and bolts of his suicide: standing up or sitting down? Gun pointed at the roof of his mouth or the back of his head?

Ford's stylistic flourishes are occasionally a little obvious (he likes to film Firth in cold, washed-out colors, while bathing others in warm light, even in the same scene), but other times work wonders. His flashbacks, in particular, are so beautifully textured as to almost be tactile; they aren't just a narrative device, but memories. Firth, looking disconcertingly like Michael Douglas, gives the performance of his career (on the heels of another brilliant, very different turn in Easy Virtue), without a hint of the blandly genial love interest in which he used to specialize. And Julianne Moore shows up for ten minutes and creates a singular, heartbreakingly real character -- just casually, like it's no big deal.

Isherwood's novel is renowned as a milestone in gay literature, and the movie wrings some of its most heartwrenching moments from the pervasive exclusion endured by gays in America circa 1964 (and to some degree still): George is told that Jim's funeral is only for "family" (which "family" didn't call George for a good day and a half after Jim's fatal accident); Charley, who of all people should know better, laments that she and George could not have a "real" relationship because of George's "substitute" feelings for Jim. But A Single Man is more universal than that too. What George arrives at, ultimately, is a breathtakingly simple way to endure the unendurable; to find something to live for even when that seems inconceivable.

A Single Man flirts with greatness, but then punches us in the mouth with a cruel, pointlessly ironic ending -- a misguided attempt at an O. Henry-esque twist. (Think "The Cop and the Anthem," except even meaner). It's a totally unnecessary bit of nastiness that cheapens an otherwise lovely film, and one of the year's most promising directorial debuts.