I wanted to know the answer to a question: can a famous fashion designer become a filmmaker? Tom Ford wrote, produced and directed this film, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood about a gay college professor in California, mourning the accidental death of his lover, while attempting to reconcile his melancholy all in one day.
Tom Ford was the creative director for Gucci. He started his own label of luxury and high-end menswear and accessories. The man knows clothing and knows it very well. The question was if he could turn that knowledge of fashion into knowledge of filmmaking. From what I've seen, the answer is a resounding yes.
Colin Firth stars as George who awakes from a nightmare on Friday, Nov. 30, 1963. As he gets out of bed and performs the normal routine one does to groom and prepare for a day of work, slowly Falconer starts to reveal that the nightmare isn't just a dream. It's real. Firth is brilliant in these early moments of making us feel the loneliness and the heartache, figurative and literal, that this man feels.
George is paralyzed at the sound of a ringing telephone. When you see the emotional gut punch that he receives, which causes that paralysis, one understands why Firth is being considered for the Oscar. Yet, credit must also be given to Ford and his editor Joan Sobel for cutting together the telephone sequence that is so powerful as to reach into your own soul. Through their choices in angles and cutting pace, anchored by Firth's moving, almost tearful, rendition, this one scene is perhaps the most empathetic moment I've seen on the big screen all year.
So paralyzed, one wonders how this man can possibly go to work, visit friends or run errands, while in such a condition. Yet, he does. He goes to work. He teaches his students. He runs errands and he visits his friend. It's not until halfway through the film that you realize how he can do all that in his condition, a condition that requires aspirin and alcohol. He's basically floating.
George doesn't become aware of it at first, but the little things he does, which result in him encountering people, sometimes just bumping into them, grant him "moments of clarity." George walks around in what seems like murkiness, a haze, not really aware of what's going on, just going through the motions, all the while detached. Yet, it's these moments of clarity, these moments that may seem random or common, that slightly pull him back from the edge. They're moments when George connects to other human beings, even if it's just sharing a cigarette with one. They're moments when he sees and feels that he's not alone and that there are others around him that he can reach out and touch.
Two of the people who grant George the greatest moments of clarity are his oldest friend, Charley, and his most attentive student, Kenny. Oscar-nominated actress Julianne Moore plays Charley with a bubbly fierceness and a chic, yet sweet, superciliousness. She goes from funny banter to drunken spat, which offers much insight into her character and reveals her to be more than just the "Grace" to his "Will." Kenny is played by former child actor Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy). Kenny is almost like a younger version of George, but more impressively is like a younger version of Jim, George's late lover, played in flashback by Matthew Goode (Watchmen and Match Point).
Firth, through his interactions with his co-stars, charms us ever the more, and is so open as to allow us into this man's heart so that we can know his pain, his longing. Ford, however, is no slouch. He along with his Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau help us feel the pain, the mourning, and the longing as well. Their specific use of close-ups and the changing of the color scheme sometimes smoothly make us feel the distance or the intensity of George.
Ford and Grau love close-ups of the eyes and the lips, the two major parts of the human body that we use to connect to others, eye-contact, talking, kissing, all to make the audience feel that intimacy and that sensuality that George is missing yet yearning. At times, Ford and Grau, or however the film's colorist is, will begin with what is almost a gray and washed-out look and move toward a brightened and saturated palette, so that the film frame is more alive. But, they're only brief, like teases.
There are other touches of editing and cinematography that make Ford's film flourish, small touches, including the amazing score by Abel Korzeniowski, but that add up to something beautiful at the end, despite the sadness. Ford's writing is spot on as well, picking the perfect words from Isherwood's novel, whether it's discussing Aldous Huxley or talking existentially about the life of dogs. The dialogue is engaging. It's witty. It makes you want to listen.
I've gone through an entire review about a fashion designer's film and not once mentioned the costumes. No need! There's nothing to criticize. It's all like something out of Mad Men, and it's perfect. This was one of the best films of 2009.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for some disturbing images and nudity
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.