First time filmmakers rarely hit a home run with their debut, but fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford has come pretty close with the new drama "A Single Man."  A moving exploration of a day in the life of a 60s college professor (Colin Firth) who can't move on from the death of his lover (Matthew Goode) eight months before, Ford has adapted Christopher Isherwood's novel into one of the true surprises of the fall festival season. 

Firth won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival this past weekend for his portrayal and it's hard to remember the last time he was so superb on screen.  The beloved TV British mini-series for "Pride & Prejudice" almost 15 years ago?  It's hard to say for sure, but when the 49-year-old actor opens up the emotional floodgates towards the end of the film it's heartbreaking and had many in the audience teary-eyed.

But Firth isn't alone in providing excellent work to Ford, Julianne Moore who was pretty pedestrian earlier in the day in the dreadful "Chloe" redeems herself with a charismatic turn as George's longtime friend Charlotte.  Could she squeeze into the best supporting actress race?  It's not out of the question, but more importantly, it's fun to see her having fun on screen again. 

The film also features a fine performance by Matthew Goode as George's deceased lover Jim (portrayed in flashbacks), Ginnifer Goodwin as a seemingly sympathetic neighbor and Nicholas Hoult (all grown up from "About a Boy") as a young man who may want more than the formal student-teacher relationship.  Oh, and some actor who knows a little about the 60s, "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, makes a cameo on the phone as a relative of George's deceased (at the Q&A following the screening Ford said Hamm's agent wouldn't let them put his name in the credits).

Helping drive the movie is a beautiful score by Abel Korzenioski and Shigueru Umebayashi (who is credited with additional music) and fine camera work by 28-year-old Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau.  As expected, a fashion icon isn't doing a period piece without having emaculate costumes.  It's unclear how much "A Single Man" cost, but he smartly recruited Oscar-nominee Adrianne Phillips ("Walk the Line") to stretch a budget like you wouldn't believe with this one.

Because Firth's performance is so strong, distributors who may have shied away from the film's overly gay subject matter (and trust me, it's as gay as "A Serious Man" is Jewish) will jump at the chance to release on the buzz over an awards-worthy performance from the Brit.  In fact, those comparing the acquisition scenario around "A Single Man" to the Mickey Rourke-fueled "The Wrestler" at leaster's Toronto Festival aren't that far off.  With the right distributor (calling Focus Features...) "A Single Man" could certainly do half or more of the $31 million "Milk" made last year (for comparison, "Wrestler" made $26 million without a best picture nod). Considering how many execs exited the theater to huddle and confer immediately at the end of the film's North American screening at the Toronto Film Festival tonight, chances are it will be the first major pick up of festival this year.

As a director, Ford shows a remarkable ability to pull strong performances from his actors. His staging of flashback scenes between Goode and Firth are particularly well done in that you never question for a moment these aren't two men who deeply love each other.  Where Ford shows the most first time filmmaker flaws is in his tendency to fall in love with his thematic imagery.  He's just  a little too precious with it and a little too "perfect" about it.  Perhaps it's the fashion designer in him or first-time jitters, but the only major criticism of the film is that it could have been a bit "rougher" around the edges to draw the user into the reality of George's world.

Still, there is much to love about "A Single Man" besides Firth and Moore's performances.  And for all those naysayers who couldn't believe Ford could direct a stand out film, prepare to eat crow.  I believe my serving should be delivered to my hotel room at any moment.

For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory