Colin Firth and First-Time Director Tom Ford Add Joy to "A Single Man"

Fashion luminary Tom Ford makes an auspicious debut as a filmmaker with A Single Man, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's seminal 1964 novel about a man struggling to cope with the death of his longtime partner. Ford's direction of the meticulously designed film can be heavy-handed at times, but a remarkably nuanced script (co-written by Ford and David Scearce) and an exceptional performance by Colin Firth pick the film up whenever it stumbles.

Firth stars as George Falconer, an English literature professor living in a gorgeously idealized 1960s Los Angeles. George's life has come down around him, and it has nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis that has sent his neighbors scrambling to prepare a bomb shelter. Eight months ago, George's spouse of 16 years, a sleepy-eyed architect named Jim (Matthew Goode), was killed in a car accident. Of Jim's relatives, only a cousin felt that George had any right to know of his partner's fate; George isn't even allowed to attend the funeral, as the service is "for family only."

George, a buttoned-down British expat, has moved on with his life in appearance only. He's going through the motions, but he's racked with crippling grief and constant loneliness. Most of the film's action is confined to one day; in the morning, George forces himself to get out of bed and tells himself he just needs to "get through the goddamned day"—at the end of which, he intends to kill himself.

In the hours that intervene, he goes about the business of putting his affairs in order. He cleans out his office and his safe deposit box, leaves notes for his best friend and his housekeeper, lays out the suit he wants to be buried in. ("Tie in a Windsor knot," says the note he leaves on the tie.) He spends the evening drinking and dancing with his best friend and former lover, a bawdy and glamorous divorcee named Charley (Julianne Moore, in her best role in years). But what is George really looking for—an excuse to die, or a reason to live?

The film looks every bit as good as you'd expect, and then some. Ford, who almost single-handedly saved the Gucci fashion house in the '90s before launching his own self-named label, makes sure every frame looks like a gloriously designed ad from a vintage issue of Vogue. With the help of Mad Men production designer Dan Bishop and up-and-coming Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau, Ford strikes a fine balance between upscale tony and down-market kitsch. Sets and costumes recall Hitchcock's early '60s films (which are often referenced in A Single Man), while frequent adjustments to the color saturation skew the look and feel of the picture whenever George comes in contact with other characters. Scenes shift abruptly from bleak, washed-out shades of blue and beige to vibrant golds and reds, then back again just as quickly. In its own way, A Single Man is just as visually stunning as Avatar.

Ford's appreciation for beauty is far from skin-deep, though. In George, he gives us a protagonist we can genuinely care about. His loss is heartbreaking, and it comes across in every scene. Firth delivers one of the defining performances of his career; measured and subtle, he gives us carefully doled-out hints of the anguish that lurks just beneath the reserved face George shows the world. The supporting cast, which also includes About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult as Kenny, a student whose interest in his English lit professor is far from academic, gets the job done beautifully, but it's Firth's show and we never forget it.

If it all sounds unbearably depressing, don't worry—I promise it isn't. Though it can't help being a somber picture, A Single Man isn't without moments of humor and genuine joy. Ford isn't a one-trick pony, and neither is his film. Though it has a tendency to stray into self-consciously artsy territory, A Single Man is engaging and compulsively watchable. It might seem astonishing that Ford's only previous experience with film production was overseeing ad campaigns, but is the jump to filmmaking really any greater than the one to fashion design? (Ford's degree is in architecture.) Apparently, whenever Tom Ford wants to do something, the appropriate response is to toss him a wad of money and tell him to go for it.