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MOVIES: Firth gives great performance in 'A Single Man'

Special Photo: The Weinstein Co.. Colin Firth and Julianne Moore star in "A Single Man."

Special Photo: The Weinstein Co.. Colin Firth and Julianne Moore star in "A Single Man."

A Single Man

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

For the bulk of his 25-year career, Colin Firth has straddled the fence between art-house and mainstream fare while essentially playing the same character in every one. Handsome, witty, affable and more than competent, Firth could have achieved the same kind of household name status of fellow Brit Hugh Grant, yet chose to keep his batting average high by selecting primo material, laying low, playing it safe and not getting caught with hookers.

At first glance, "A Simple Man" finds the Golden Globe-nominated Firth delivering his usual perfunctory performance, but thanks to astute direction, a wicked-smart screenplay and some of the most impeccable cinematography of the year, his performance -- like his character George -- is stunningly convincing.

The story, based on the best-selling novel by Christopher Isherwood, covers one day in 1962 where the British George, working as a college professor in Los Angeles, appears to be planning his own early departure.

Still monumentally depressed months after the tragic death of his lover of 16 years, George sees no reason to carry on. He empties his desk at school, the safety deposit box at his bank and is planning a final meal with his unsuspecting English ex-girlfriend Charley (Julianne Moore). Throughout the day, George exchanges small talk with a neighbor (Ginnifer Goodwin) and is presented with two very viable new love interests, but has clearly made up his mind.

The film looks exactly like what you might expect from a high-end fashion designer.

Texas-born writer and first time director Tom Ford singlehandedly revived the Gucci house in the '90s before launching his own brand in 2004 and his movie is almost too beautiful. Every single image is perfectly framed and Ford's attention to detail so meticulous, the film is noticeably arid and antiseptic -- which might be Ford's point.

The early '60s (and the late '40s and '50s) were a dangerous period for homosexuals and even during the good times (seen in flashback) with his partner Jim (Matthew Goode), George is taut, guarded and always looking over his shoulder. In the farewell speech delivered to his class, George uses political infighting and social intolerance as a thinly veiled cloak for rampant homophobia. A few of his enlightened students pick up on it and one of them perceives George's words and eye contact as an indirect come-on.

The movie is top-heavy with innuendo and once you lock into the visual shorthand and catch the rhythm of the speech patterns, Isherwood, Ford and George's singular mission becomes easy to peg. The story is simple and told economically yet still carries with it just the slightest whiff of secretive insider buzz-speak and detached artistic elitism.

Ford's movie is far from perfect, but for a rookie it is remarkably assured and concise. If he decides or is afforded the opportunity to make another, he should let his hair down a bit and make something a little less brittle, calculating and self-reverential. (The Weinstein Co.)