Professor George Falconer wakes up miserable and, making no mystery of why today is not going to be like all the other days, puts a revolver in his briefcase. It’s a detail that lays out the central dilemma of Tom Ford’s directorial debut. Crystallizing the tension around a basic will-he-or-won’t-he suicide plot frees the viewer to feast their eyes, because when the former fashion designer for Gucci makes a film, gratuitous cinematographic candy is a given. But as it is his first feature, there are mistakes in pacing, solipsistic misfires, and smugly underwritten supporting characters. But it’s OK, because Ford’s George, in all his grief, is Colin Firth. And he’s good enough to redeem all the stylistic liberties taken with Christopher Isherwood’s iconic 1964 novel.
The following will annoy you for a while, until it doesn’t: the camera is slow beyond poignancy — even his standard suburban neighbors are shown in slow motion, holding extra long on children so annoying that they must make George feel pretty good about being gay. The film stock itself is used as a kitsch cinematic mood ring — most of the time George lives in a gray world drained of vitality, unless he’s encountering a flirtatious young student, or a male hooker, or his best friend and fellow expat played by Julianne Moore — in moments of happiness, the screen will flood with yellows, reds, and color saturations that at the very least interrupt the narrative, and at most recall the painful lessons of white-balancing. The teacher’s pet is too baby-faced, angelic, too willing, and too obviously a personal savior to not be slightly creepy. And while the flashbacks give some of film’s strongest scenes — the phone call about the death of his lover of almost two decades, or his black-and-white memories of their good times — other mental motifs, like his premonitions of drowning, recur too often. Also, the Cuban Missile crises seems to be of note, but a sense of place and history rarely permeates beyond the period costume.
But Firth will make you forgive all this — his performance can safely be declared the only subtle, and the most sincere, element of this film. He plays George’s grief with muted but debilitating elegance; the best spectacle of suffering to grace the cinema in recent years. He walks about his chic glass house, dresses immaculately, speaks firmly but kindly to his maid, and realizes he can’t go on like this.
Firth shows us a man mediating his own mental breakdown in the most disciplined and dignified manner; we see him fall apart from the inside, with class — and he has good company. Moore, for the few minutes she’s granted, provides the only other character of notable depth as Charlotte, a vain, lonely, and ultimately aging pity-party of a glamour girl. Charley proves more parasitic than supportive to the drifting, distanced George who obligingly, and lovingly, pays her a last visit, scotch in hand. They are two Brits in Los Angeles, nursing their mid-life crises with varying doses of self-indulgence and self-delusion — all the more endearing for their drunken floor-sprawled hand-holding.
Despite the stylistic vanity, do see the film, if only for how George looks in the mirror in the morning and deems his reflection not so much “a face in the mirror, but the expression of a predicament.” We watch in the hope he’ll prolong this “predicament” rather than use the revolver.