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Tom Ford: From fashion to film

He's best known as the designer who sexed up Gucci and the catwalks in the Nineties. Now Tom Ford has turned his hand to directing with his movie debut, 'A Single Man'. Kaleem Aftab reports from Venice

With his movie debut A Single Man, Tom Ford proves he's just as much of a stylist in the director's chair as he was when he turned around the fortunes of Italian fashion house Gucci in the 1990s.

It's been five years since the immaculate designer left the Italian fashion house, telling the world that he was going to change career. As expected, his first film, A Single Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival yesterday, is heavy on style. It's also remarkably polished.

With this film, the last to be shown in the official competition, Ford has fired the first salvo of the coming catwalk season. And thanks to a starry, sharply dressed premiere, the director of the Venice Film Festival, Marco Müller, has delivered on his promise that there would be more glamour on offer on the Lido this year.

Since leaving the good ship Gucci, Ford hasn't abandoned fashion. He's been busy creating his own-name fashion label. So it comes as no surprise that all of his actors, from the leading players – Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode (last seen in the Brideshead Revisited remake) and Skins graduate Nicholas Hoult – to the extras look as if they belong in glossy magazines – both on screen and off, while posing at the premiere. One of the first scenes of A Single Man features Firth putting on a sharp black suit over a white shirt (he wears only white shirts) and a black tie, immaculately finished with a silver tie clip. Ford lavishes his camera over every detail right down to the shiny black shoes and array of cologne in front of the mirror.

Based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel of the same name, A Single Man is an ambitious literary adaptation (Ford has written the screenplay as well as directing) that uses the backdrop of Los Angeles during the Cuban missile crisis to tell a tale of a British professor, George Falconer, trying to come to terms with the death of his lover. As the melancholic teacher, Firth gives his best performance in years. He clearly revels in playing the distanced Englishman struggling to get in touch with his emotions. "I like being cold and wet," he says in one scene. "I'm English."

Falconer comes out of his grief only in the classroom, abandoning teaching a class on Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan to talk about fear. His impassioned, fiery display catches the eye of his student Kenny, played by Hoult. Whenever Hoult turns up on screen, Ford saturates the colour palette to intensify the blueness of his eyes. It's a technique that works effectively when first done, creating focus like a zoom shot, but, as with everything in the movie, it's overdone to the extent that it deadens the effect.

For the most part Falconer spends his day thinking about Jim (Goode), the love he lost in a car crash. The opening scene is a heavily stylised look at the scene of the accident with Firth waltzing slowly through the snow before bending down over the body and attempting to give Jim the kiss of life. It may not have revived the bloodied face but it set pulses racing in the audience. As did a scene in which Firth frolics naked in the sea. The actor may be approaching 50 but you wouldn't know it. Could this be the film which will finally eclipse the memory of his white-shirted Mr Darcy emerging from the lake?

Less successful is the character of Charley. Casting Moore in the role, Ford has wisely decided to make her far more glamorous than she is in Isherwood's book. He also creates a new back story between the pair in which Charley and George have had a fling in London. Moore plays the woman with an existential fear of being alone too large. There is no way of liking her, making George's rejection plausible on more levels than simply the fact that he's homosexual.

The director has clearly been inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, an influence also reflected in the swooping score. Like the movies of the 1950s, A Single Man is set in a world bursting with beautiful people. Sometimes too many beautiful people. In one scene he lingers over topless boys playing tennis while in another Falconer meets a James Dean lookalike at a convenience store under the soft glow of a pink sunset.

The big question is whether A Single Man will take home the Golden Lion tonight. This year, it's an open field with no clear favourite. In a strong selection, the only train wreck was Jaco van Dormael's Mr Nobody, a sci-fi adventure set in 2092 when the last mortal human is left on Earth. He tells a psychiatrist and a journalist about his life, or alternative lives, in an effort to help his younger self arrive at a big decision. With the American hopes seemingly resting on Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, the films that are likely to be pulled out of the envelope are smaller, more personal tales such as Jessica Hausner's look at the marketing of miracles in Lourdes, Claire Denis' post-colonial tale set in Cameroon, White Material, which stars Isabelle Huppert, and Samuel Moaz's Lebanon, in which the director recounts his own harrowing tale of being a stranded soldier during the 1982 war.

The jury, headed by the former Golden Lion winner Ang Lee, could confound the critics by going for the surprise movie Lola from this year's Best Director at Cannes, the prolific Filipino Brillante Mendoza, or Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men. Outside of the main festival, Hana Makhmalbaf, the youngest of the Makhmalbaf clan, unveiled Green Days, which mixes footage that she shot in the run-up to the recent Iranian election with mobile phone footage that was posted on YouTube of the riots that took place after President Ahmadinejad proclaimed victory. The 21-year-old director has now fled Iran. Her condemnation of the Iranian regime provided the perfect counterpoint to all the frivolity surrounding Tom Ford and his Single Man.