Less than five minutes into Tom Ford's A Single Man, Colin Firth's character, George Falconer, says in a voice-over monologue, "I know fully what part I am supposed to play."
He is staring into the mirror, taking stock of his features and his feelings. But the image we see is a different Firth than the dour-cum-puppy-dog persona he's become so known for in Bridget Jones's Diary , Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. This man takes great pains to remain poised and polished despite being consumed by the emotional pain of having lost his lover (Matthew Goode) in a recent car crash. "Slightly stiff but still perfect," he concludes, acknowledging that the man staring back at him "isn't so much a face as a predicament."
It's heavy stuff to be contemplating before he sits down to breakfast (or skips it; the bread was never defrosted) yet Nov. 30, 1962, will be like none other for 52-year-old George who has every intention of committing suicide by day's end.
How long does it take to become this man? He's hanging on by his fingernails and in this case the fingernails are the cufflinks, the perfectly tied knots.
Firth, who appeared sharply dressed for an interview during September's Toronto International Film Festival, admits he identifies with some aspects of George, a British professor teaching English in Los Angeles, better than others. Which ones?
"The way he gets himself together in order to face the world; the way he tries to turn himself into an effective, almost machine-like creature for school," answered Firth, whose performance earned him a best-actor award at the Venice Film Festival in early September.
As for the fastidiousness, described by Firth as "body armour," well, that's pure Ford. "This is where Tom's own skills are informed by his own passions, by his own needs. So it's not about decorating the film although there's nothing wrong with that," explained Firth. "It's actually at the service of saying something about who this guy is. How long does it take to become this man? He's hanging on by his fingernails and in this case the fingernails are the cufflinks, the perfectly tied knots."
Ford, famously known as a scrupulous fashion designer, has repeatedly said that A Single Man , adapted from the short novel by Christopher Isherwood, is his most personal work to date. "There's an enormous amount of me in the book," he confessed in a separate interview during TIFF, only hours after he had signed a distribution deal with Miramax (Ford provided much of the film's financing in the wake of Lehman Brothers going bankrupt last year).
In collaboration with Canadian screenwriter David Scearce, Ford said he was able to "graft a lot of my own struggles that I was going through in life" onto the story (fortunately, he had the support of Isherwood's partner, Don Bachardy).
The role of director suits him, he added. "Having always been in fashion and the business side of fashion, I'm very pragmatic and I like that part of being in control. A lot of people have criticized me for it, but as a designer, if you're not in control, you're not designing. The whole point is, it's my way; that's what a designer is."
A Single Man is meant to explore the spiritual side of life; Isherwood studied the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, where Ford has looked to the classic Chinese text Tao Te Ching for answers beyond the material world. As George's day advances with the dreamy cadence of a Debussy composition, he begins to see everything with added richness - colour manipulation in postproduction transforms objects and people from wan to Technicolor - because he believes it's his last opportunity to take it all in. It's an existential narrative wrapped in the same mid-century modern slickness as Mad Men .
And while setting the story in the present could have worked, staying faithful to the era worked that much better. For one thing, "being gay isn't as much an issue today," he said. "I was also born in 1961; my earliest memories of my mother are with the beehive hairspray, so for me it's also [a]very personal era because it's among my first memories of beauty."
Ford modelled George's boozy pal Charley, wonderfully played by Julianne Moore, after his grandmother, right down to the pink cigarettes. Ford said he was beside himself when costume designer Arianne Phillips (regular stylist to Madonna) showed him the vintage black-and-white dress that Charley would eventually wear for the dinner scene and it was from the same now-defunct store El Pavon where his grandmother shopped in New Mexico.
"There were a lot of weird things like that [that]happened on [the]movie," he said, pointing out that he shares the same astrological sign, Virgo, as Firth and Isherwood.
The appeal of the film for Firth was that "it didn't seem to conform to any conventions … so it was a leap into the unknown." But the opportunity to work with Ford, who he knew little about, proved even more compelling. "It had been proposed to me by a very, very brilliant man who never made a film before."
What excited him less was the scene where he strips down to go night swimming. "The hardest thing is when you read a script and see you have to take your shirt off. And you think, oh God, how many hours of [exercise]do I have to do or how many lentils do I have to eat?" Firth deadpanned.
Ford said working with great actors made his transition into filmmaking that much smoother. And for someone who's directed fashion spreads and ad campaigns, it's not as if he was new to working behind the camera. "I felt so comfortable from the moment I started. You know, the only nerve-wracking day I had was the very first day where I had to say 'action' and 'cut' because I was terrified to say 'cut,'" he said, laughing. "I wanted to make sure I knew how to do that."
A Single Man opens in select Canadian theatres on Dec. 11.