As far as directorial debuts by fashion designers go, you aren't likely to see one better than Tom Ford's A Single Man, a heart-stopping portrait of grief lined with an underlying hopefulness that keeps it from being too grim.

As far as directorial debuts by fashion designers go, you aren't likely to see one better than Tom Ford's A Single Man, a heart-stopping portrait of grief lined with an underlying hopefulness that keeps it from being too grim.

Ford's roots at Gucci may speak to the film's abundance of style, but solid storytelling and a superb lead performance provide ample substance.

Set in Los Angeles in 1962 (with the Cuban Missile Crisis providing background noise), A Single Man documents a single day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a middle-aged British college professor numbed by the recent death of his longtime partner (Matthew Goode). He quietly absorbs the small beauties he can find in his life, which he plans to end by his own hand at day's end.

Firth speaks volumes with a furrowed brow. His character isn't crying for help; he's suffering with a quiet, intellectual resolve, once lamenting, "The dumbest creatures are always the happiest." It's one of the year's finest acting performances and demands to be seen.

Ford speaks cinema fluently for a first-timer. He's occasionally guilty of overindulging his visual impulses, and misfires a bit on pace. But he doesn't lose sight of the optimism that gives the film a warmth not apparent at first glance. It's a fine debut and a rather remarkable film.